Mini-MegaTrend: The Demise of the Downtown Airpark
Frost & Sullivan has been examining future major trends that we expect to occur in the ten to twenty year timeframe. Among these is the creation and growth of MegaCities or Megalopolises. These will have major effects on the way people live and work. One of the more pronounced effects will be on the way that people travel. A subset of that travel issue is the access to business and general aviation aircraft.
Many of the larger cities in the US have general aviation airfields near their downtown area. Some of these are former city airfields which have been replaced by larger, more modern airports on the periphery of the city. They now continue to exist as operating locations for business aircraft or as small general aviation airfields. Some are owned by the cities or airport authorities and others are in private hands. Over the last twenty years, these airfields have been challenged to stay in operation.
There are a number of reasons for their operations to be challenged. In some cases, the area around the airfield has become a distinctly less desirable part of town. A Learjet operator moved his operation to an airport on the fringe of the city because his wife felt uncomfortable visiting an airport with tagging on every surface and homeless people sleeping against the fences. Other airports have issues with contamination from years of fuel spills and unauthorized dumping. Many private airfields have experienced significant raises in property values and therefore property taxes. Noise complaints have restricted operating hours and traffic patterns to the point that many downtown airports have become inconvenient despite proximity. Probably the biggest threat comes from the cities themselves.
Cities see the revenue possibilities as being far greater at their main airports than at the downtown airpark. They care very little about the true GA operations. Those probably are not economically viable on their own. It is the business aircraft traffic that attracts their attention. They see landing fees, parking fees, taxi and rental car revenue, and many other opportunities from business travel. This is especially true when the downtown airpark is privately held. Visiting the NBAA and AOPA websites will almost immediately highlight the top three or four airports at risk of closure. Most of those are targeted for closure by the city. Few have gone as far as Richard Daley in bulldozing Meigs Field, but cities have been using his security and safety refrain as their reasons. The reality is probably much more tied to revenue than either security or safety.
The reality is that airports effectively restrict building around them. Noise complaints are expensive to fix, as are other environmental issues. As cities become megacities, the ability to operate fixed wing aircraft near the downtown area becomes impractical due to airspace, safety, environmental and business considerations. So, what happens then?
Moving the business aircraft to the suburbs only really works if the businesses have moved there as well. In some cities that has become the norm. However, the existing megacities suggest that the move to the suburbs is a temporary phenomenon. Corporate headquarters in the megacities tend to be returning to city central. If the downtown airpark is no longer viable, what is the corporate travel model?
Some would suggest that helicopters would provide the transportation to the next business mode. That next mode could be the main metropolitan airport or a business airport that would likely be even farther from the city’s center. In some very large cities, that travel model is used by a number of large corporations. Several of the larger corporations in Chicago have helicopters that deliver the executives to Chicago Executive Airport, north of Chicago, to meet up with their FalconJets and G5s. However, owning a business jet, a helicopter and the crews to fly and maintain them is clearly beyond the business model for all except the biggest corporations. That brings up the possibilities of helicopter air taxis. That is already a reality in many big cities. Heliports in the downtown area are more sustainable than fixed wing airfields. The question comes down to demand. Why not just take the helicopter to the main city airport? In my judgment, most metro airports are not helicopter friendly environments. Most would need some level of redesign to accommodate routine helicopter operations.
The loss of the downtown airpark is likely to seriously affect the future of business aviation. The airlines are doing their utmost to convince us all that business aviation is a better option, but making it more expensive and less convenient to travel via business aircraft may seriously damage business aviation. That may be one of the lasting legacies of the megacity.