In the last century airport development was dominated first by the Europeans and then after the Second World War by North America. Moving onwards over the globe, 21st century’s hotspot of airport developments is Asia.
Whereas construction of new airports is today a task of the Eastern hemisphere, today most passenger still fly over North America and Europe; the Asia-Pacific region ranks only third. Also the Middle East with strategically excellent hub locations as Dubai only plays a marginal role in terms of overall passenger volume. Clearly, with the current construction hype, Asia and the Middle East brace themselves for future demands.
The world’s ten busiest airports in terms of passenger volume reflect that mix, too: Five of these ten can still be found in the United States today. Europe follows with three, Asia has two. However, Beijing International Airport is head to head with Atlanta’s as the world’s busiest airport in terms of passenger volume. Furthermore, Beijing is currently planning for yet another international hub airport although the highly acclaimed Capital Airport was just expanded for the 2008 Olympic Games with what was then the word’s largest terminal building.
In the year 2000, 13 of the 20 busiest airports were still located in the United States. Asian countries were only represented with two airports: Tokyo and Seoul.
The top 10 list includes airports of world cities like London, Paris, Tokyo or Beijing. Other examples like Atlanta or Dallas are less prominent on the world stage, but boost high passenger volume. Here it is important to understand that these hub airports with their wealth of transit passengers as opposed to destination passengers generate a lot of passenger traffic: one often flies through these airports without visiting their respective cities.
While only two of the ten busiest airports represent green field developments built on virgin land within the last 30 years, these airports and their idealized plans seem to have less inhibited growth potential than their earlier built, today often land-locked Western peers. Counting the number of large green field airports that were built within the last 20 years or airports that were substantially enlarged during this time period yields six airports in Europe, five projects in the Middle East, and eleven in South-East Asia and India.
A look at the annual passenger volume reveals that the airports with the most traffic within the above group are to be found in Europe and especially South-East Asia.
Six of the eleven Asian project are completely new airports far from any urban entities and their respective city center. They were planned in ideal setups from scratch with room to grow, did not have to deal with obsolete runway layouts, existing infrastructures and buildings or noise-nauseated neighbors. Airports like Hong Kong International, Incheon in Seoul, and Kansai in Osaka were even constructed on man-made islands. Therefore, their growth and expansion potential should be especially large as it is not hemmed in by already existing urban fabric, but buffered by water. Other Asian airports like Shanghai Pudong were built along the sea to achieve similar qualities.
It is this independence from existing fabrics that will endow these airports with a competitive edge among their competitors. Their autarkic setup will also catalyze airport city developments since their conception could be incorporated into the overall master plan early on. These are the true airports of the 21st century; enormous, idealized entities that are tied into a global network of hubs. They create their own micro economies, demands, and attractions, claim their own urbanity and life-style. It will have to be seen if they can live up to their own promises.