By MATT THOMASON
“If you’ve seen one airport, you’ve seen one airport.”
The simple premise of this popular expression is that each airport is one-of-a-kind, matchless, unique. Airports can vary by size, shape, geography, airspace, and many other things.
Public perceptions of airports can also vary depending on the individual’s point of view.
To some, airports represent a business or a place that keeps business moving. Others see them as places of learning and inspiration that introduce the joy of aviation to the next generation.
Airports are also seen as a valuable community resource enabling public services, such as medical transport and law enforcement.
And let’s not forget that many see airports as places of fun and recreation.
Unfortunately, not everyone views airports so favorably. There are those out there who believe airports are solely a source of noise, pollution or — worse yet — a playground only for the wealthy.
Whether by activism, residential encroachment, or tightening local budgets, airports may find their local and political support has diminished.
To make things worse, the waning of local support is not always immediate, but develops over time. This makes it even harder to notice or combat until local support has already turned.
And once local support is gone, the maintenance, development, and advancement of an airport is in jeopardy.
This is why airports must constantly work to convey the value of their airport to the local community.
One of the most common ways to convey the value of an airport is by promoting the transportation benefits it brings to a community. Airports enable the movement of people and goods. They allow a community access to the nation’s air transportation system.
And while benefits like these are absolutely worth promoting, they are not always effective at gaining local support.
The better way to hit home is not by appealing to people’s hearts or minds, but their pockets. The one thing that is clear in our society — for better or worse — is that money talks.
In general, a community is more supportive of an airport when its positive financial impact on the local economy is known.
For proponents of airports to convey the financial effect of an airport to their community, it is helpful to have a basic understanding of how it is determined.
An airport’s financial impact (or total economic impact) is the sum of all economic activities that can be tied to the operation of the airport. It quantifies the total dollar value an airport brings to the local economy.
Essentially there are three factors that make up the total economic impact of an airport: The direct, indirect, and induced impacts.
As the name implies, direct impacts are those generated directly from the airport itself.
This includes payroll from airport employees and on-airport businesses, tenants, and operators such as Fixed Base Operators (FBO), crop dusting, air ambulance, air taxi/charter, etc.
Direct impacts also include any goods and services purchased by on-airport businesses. On-airport construction projects are direct impacts as well.
Indirect Impacts are the second round of impacts. An indirect impact measures the money spent in a community from the users of an airport.
Typically this is the money visitors using the airport spend in a community. Examples include hotels, restaurants, rental cars, entertainment, attractions, etc.
Surveys are typically given to local businesses to gauge the level of visitor spending to determine the indirect impacts.
Induced impacts can be thought of as the rock thrown into a calm pond. They are the “ripple effect” of local dollars enabled by the airport. This ripple effect is also called the multiplier effect, as the impacts continue to multiply through a community.
For example, a rental car company must hire more employees due to the number of cars rented at the airport. The car rental company is now spending more money on payroll. As a result, the rental car employees spend more money in the community. This is the induced impact. It is the increase in money from an injection of spending.
Good News, Bad News
As you may well imagine, going through the processes described above can be a tedious and complex task. That’s the bad news.
The good news is that if your local airport is a public airport, the work may already have been done for you.
Nearly every state in the nation has an organization responsible for administering state aviation activities, regulations, and funding programs. Typically this is done through a state’s department of transportation (DOT).
Many times, DOTs conduct airport economic impact studies as part of the state system plan, like the Idaho Airport System Plan, or in stand-alone plans like the Florida Statewide Aviation Economic Impact Study.
As a starting point for your airport, Airports Council International-North America (ACI-NA) maintains a large listing and links to a number of these DOT economic impact studies. You can check it out here.
Alternatively, airport economic impact studies are sometimes included as part of an airport’s master plan. Occasionally they may be conducted by a local chamber of commerce or economic development authority.
Your local airport administrators may also have additional information on this all-important subject.
Whether you are a pilot, an airport tenant, local business, or just a concerned citizen economically impacted by your airport, having just a few figures on the airport’s economic impact can make big difference in local and political support.
Airport economic impact studies can do far more than just protect your airport — they can actually spur increased local funding into airport development projects.
The key thing to remember and convey to your community is that airports are far more than just airports.
Matt Thomason is an aviation planner and engineering project manager serving general aviation airports in the southeast. He is also a certified member of the American Association of Airport Executives.