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An aerotropolis in North Carolina?

By D. G. Martin
Posted Thursday, May 26, 2011

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Chapel Hill, NC - But what about North Carolina airports?

How do our major airports and associated metropolitan areas fit into the concepts for the future of the world’s mega airport cities discussed in the new book, “Aerotropolis: The Way We'll Live Next” by UNC-Chapel Hill’s John D. Kasarda and Greg Lindsay? Does any one of our “airport cities” have the potential to be a real “aerotropolis”?

In an earlier column about this book, I promised to try to respond to these questions.

“Aerotropolis” is a word that Kasarda popularized. It describes an airport-city where the airport is hub of a surrounding urban area. The urban area provides nearly “frictionless” connectivity for the airport’s passengers and freight. The urban area’s business, manufacturing, and brainpower élites thrive on the convenient and speedy global connectivity the airport provides.

Several North Carolina airports have some of the attributes of an aerotropolis.

Passenger Boardings in 2009
(compare to top-ranked Atlanta 42,280,868):
CLT 17,165,376 RDU 4,435,624 PTI* 862,679

Landed Weight (freight) in lbs. in 2009
(compare to top-ranked Memphis 18,928,729,202):
PTI* 558,148,546 RDU 436,497,214 CLT 391,159,184

*PTI=Piedmont Triad International Airport
Information provided by Federal Aviation administration

Charlotte stands out in passenger boarding and ranks as one of the world’s major airports in this category. It is a major hub. Some people in Charlotte assert that this major hub status costs them money because tickets cost more than at non-hub airports.***

But, as Kasarda explains, the time saved is valuable in a just-in-time world, more valuable than the extra money spent on tickets. Businessmen can leave Charlotte in the morning, have face-to-face meetings with clients during the day, and get home in time to sleep in their own beds. Close to downtown, the airport is minutes from the major offices. The city’s transportation network makes it convenient for business travelers.

If Charlotte had a stronger freight operation, one that was coordinated with close-by manufacturers and distributors, some people might begin to refer to the city and its airport as an aerotropolis.

Piedmont Triad (Greensboro Winston-Salem High Point) is not even close to Charlotte in passenger boardings, but it already has a much stronger freight operation than Charlotte’s, and it is growing, as FedEx’s operation expands. Kasarda points out that Piedmont Triad is located at a transportation “sweet spot” right in the middle of a network of interstate highways.

The Global TransPark (GTP) in Kinston is, on paper, an ideal aerotropolis with planned room for nearby just-in-time manufacturing and related business. But just because you build it does not mean that they will come. GTP has lacked the priceless and essential interstate access like that serving Piedmont Triad.

The success of the Research Triangle Park inspired the GTP effort. Kasarda was the idea man. Governor Jim Martin provided the initial political muscle. Quoted in the new book he says, “North Carolina has had success with radical ideas when they were able to hold off the critics long enough to get on their feet…When I heard Kasarda’s idea, I thought it would be the next one.”

Comparing the Global TransPark to the success of RTP, the new book explains, “But if one venue in the area has the hallmarks of an aerotropolis, it is Research Triangle Park. What distinguished the two, Kasarda understood belatedly, is that the latter was blessed with both highways and growing cities around it (not to mention flights across the country only ten minutes away). RTP may be an economic engine, but its cogs are able to sleep in their own beds at night.”

The strong Raleigh-Durham (RDU) airport’s close relationship with RTP serves both entities in an aerotropolis-type relationship.

No North Carolina airport city is, by itself, an aerotropolis. But if we could combine in one location the Global TransPark plans, the research and related operations that surround RDU, the businesses and talented people of Charlotte, and the sweet spot location of Piedmont Triad, we would have an aerotropolis that would compete with any in the world.


D.G. Martin is hosting his final season of UNC-TV’s North Carolina Bookwatch, which airs Sundays at 5 p.m. For more information or to view prior programs visit the webpage at

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