Airport Deserts – Exploring The Distance Between Airports And The Cities They Serve [Data Study]

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The business of flight is booming: In 2018, a billion passengers took flights involving U.S. airlines or airports, an all-time high in American air travel. Airlines have rushed to meet unprecedented demand, with some jamming extra seats into their cabins to accommodate more customers.

But before Americans can take to the skies, they need to arrive at the airport. And in remote corners of the country, this crucial step can involve an arduous trek. In fact, as airlines have sought to cut costs in recent years, many small cities have lost air service. For residents of these communities, catching a flight can require driving for hours to the nearest major hub.

Just how close are most American cities to major airports, and which places are frustratingly far from the nearest flight? To find out, we studied cities across the U.S. with 50,000 or more residents, tracking their proximity to airports of all sizes.

Our findings present huge disparities in air travel access, showcasing the challenges of air travel across large swaths of America. How does your city compare in terms of airport convenience? Keep reading to learn more.

Airport Access Around America

Size and Service

Transportation Deserts Study - Distribution of commercial airport sizes

Among the cities studied, nearly three-quarters had an airport – or multiple – within a 25-mile radius. This proximity translated to commuting convenience: Residents of these cities averaged just under a 20-minute drive to the nearest airport. In some ways, these findings seem encouraging, with a majority of city residents able to access flights with ease.

Yet, the data presents a more difficult picture: The number of active public airports has fallen steadily over the last decade, forcing many families to travel farther for air service. Indeed, 24.3% of cities were 26 to 50 miles from an airport, causing residents to drive nearly 40 minutes, on average – or pay a ride-hailing bill of approximately $37. Worse still, in nearly 5% of cities, the closest airport was at least 51 miles away.

These challenges seem especially acute in certain states. In Indiana, for example, five cities with populations of over 50,000 residents were at least 51 miles away from an airport. In California, many smaller cities were 26 to 50 miles from an airport, although parts of the Golden State are extremely well-served. In the nation’s most populous state, even relatively remote locales can swell to 50,000 or more residents – all of who must make a serious trek for air service.

As frequent travelers know all too well, not all airports are created equal. In fact, the Federal Aviation Administration uses a detailed classification system, categorizing airports based on annual passenger boardings. A large hub airport sees 1% or more of all annual commercial passenger boardings. A medium hub sees at least 0.25% but less than 1%  of all annual commercial passenger boardings, while a small hub sees at least .05% and less than .25% of all passenger boardings. Nonhub primary airports are much smaller commercial airports with at least 10,000 passenger boardings in a year and less than 0.05% of all annual passenger boardings.

Generally speaking, “large” hubs are located near major cities, with hundreds of thousands of flights arriving and departing annually. But modestly sized cities are often closest to “medium” or “small” hubs – or even smaller airports designated as “nonhub” facilities. At these smaller airports, travelers may struggle to find the direct flights they desire, necessitating layovers at other hubs.

Indeed, for just 29.5% of cities, the closest airport qualified as a large hub. To some transportation experts, this statistic reflects insufficient infrastructure investment: The U.S. hasn’t built a new major airport since 1995. Medium-sized hubs served another 25.5% of cities. But throughout much of the South, Midwest, and Pacific Northwest, residents were closest to small hubs and nonhub airports. In fact, non-hubs were the closest airports for over a quarter of the cities studied. Many of these smaller airports depend on federal funding to survive, drawing on money from a program called Essential Air Services (EAS) to serve remote communities. In recent years, proposed funding cuts have cast their continued existence into doubt.

Heading to a Hub

Transportation Deserts Study - distance between cities and airports by airport size

For 45% of cities, the closest large hub was more than 75 miles away, with an average drive time of nearly three and a half hours. For some travelers, treks of this duration are well worth the hassle, because flights from major hubs can offer substantial savings. Still, one could easily lose a full day to such a journey. Experts recommend arriving at major airports 90 minutes before one’s flight, meaning these passengers would need to leave home about five hours before takeoff, on average.

About 19% of cities were within 25 miles of small or medium-sized airports, indicating that modestly sized facilities are still the most convenient choice for many communities. And even in places where major hubs are just a short trip away, residents may prefer the small airport experience.

As travel experts will tell you, small airports often spare passengers from air travel’s most obnoxious elements, such as waiting in extended security lines and rushing between terminals. In fact, many of America’s highest-rated airports are relatively small, serving just a fraction of the passengers that major hubs do annually. Perhaps in terms of overall travel experience, more cities would benefit from a small or medium airport nearby.

Airport Proximity: Best and Worst Cities

Transportation Deserts Study - cities farthest from their nearest airport

Some cities are phenomenally close to airports, enjoying short commutes to highly regarded hubs. Santa Clara, California, for example, is incredibly close to San Jose International Airport, which receives high marks from travelers. In many instances, small cities outside of major metropolises were closest to airports bearing the larger city’s name. Kenner, Louisiana, for example, was closest to New Orlean’s major airport, while Burien, Washington, was closest to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

In other cases, small cities possessed airports of their own: Greenville, North Carolina, is right by Pitt-Greenville Airport, which averages roughly 52,000 enplanements per year. Anchorage, Alaska, is actually served by two airports, although the smaller Merrill Field Airport is closest to the city.

At the other end of the spectrum, some cities were woefully remote from any airport – and the closet option was hardly a major hub. Victoria, Texas, was the farthest city in America from any airport, and Corpus Christi International, the nearest airport, has struggled to offer a compelling mix of flights. Warner Robins, Georgia, was similarly remote from airport service, and its closest option, Columbus Airport, is served by a single airline. Our findings also reveal how certain hubs serve large portions of America: Memphis International, for example, was the closest hub to cities in both Tennessee and Arkansas.

Cost and Convenience: Spending Wisely, Traveling Widely

Flying is no longer reserved for the worldly and wealthy: More Americans than ever can now experience air travel. But our findings remind us that access is uneven. While some cities have multiple major airports at their disposal, others face long journeys just to reach the nearest hub. We may love to complain about airports and airlines, taking for granted the ability to fly often. In frustrating travel moments, however, perhaps we should bear our good fortune in mind: For many families, commuting to the airport is a journey in its own right.

Whether you live near an airport, you’ll probably face another common barrier: the cost of travel. Unfortunately, many would-be adventurers stay at home unnecessarily, unaware of smart ways to save for their travel dreams. At Upgraded Points, we’re all about maximizing travel rewards to make amazing trips affordable. With a ton of recommendations and strategies for smart travel cards, we’re here to help you reach your dream destinations.

Methodology and Limitations

For this study, we downloaded Airport Enplanement data from the FAA and only considered airports that were classified as large, medium, small, and nonprimary commercial hubs with at least 10,000 enplanements in 2018. We then focused on cities with at least 50,000 residents to determine how close or far away they were from an airport. Population estimates are 2018 population estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau.

For coordinates of cities, we used a Google Sheets plugin, Wiki coordinates, and these coordinates from OpenDataSoft. Of course, time and distance traveled to any location is dependent on traffic and where exactly your starting point is. So all of the times and distances in this project are approximate. Airport coordinates were from this Data.World source, as well as the Google Sheets plugin and Wiki coordinates mentioned above. To determine driving distance, we used Google’s API and plugged in the starting point of the city and the ending point of the airport.

To determine what percentage of the continental U.S. is within 100 miles of an airport:

Airport coordinates were mapped to EPSG:4326 projection, and then we converted all points to work with EPSG:3857 projection. We obtained 2019 TIGER “States (and equivalent)” shape files and imported them to QGIS. We removed all regions other than continental U.S. states.

Aggregate shape measurements:

LAND AREA: 7654979824369 sq. meters

WATER AREA: 426908401478 sq. meters

AGG AREA: 8,081,888,225,847 sq. meters

Then, we created geometry via a new vector buffer layer based on airport coordinates. We set the buffer radius to 100 miles. We dissolved layers to merge overlapping buffers.

We ran an overlap analysis on the filtered TIGER shape file with buffered points as an overlay and summed the buffered_area to calculate the area of land within the buffered area:

= 6,655,028,149,648.871 sq. meters

Area not within 100 miles of an airport = (Sum of continental U.S. area sq. meters – Sum of area produced by overlap analysis)/(Sum of continental U.S. area sq. meters)

OR

(8081888225847 – 6655028149648.871)/8081888225847

Fair Use Statement

The sky’s the limit when it comes to sharing this study (for noncommercial purposes, of course). If you do share our work with family and friends, we just ask that you link back to this page on Upgraded Points. Doing so gives our team members the credit they deserve and allows others to explore the full study.

Alex Miller

About Alex Miller

Alex has been traveling for over 25 years and from a young age was lucky enough to set out on numerous family trips all over the world, which gave him the travel bug. Alex has since earned millions of travel points and miles, mainly through maximizing credit card sign-up bonuses and taking every opportunity to earn the most points possible on each dollar spent.

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3 comments

  1. There is a major oversight in the initial data. Using Vermont as an example, while Burlington has a population of 42,000, that is only within the city limits. The county has over 150,000 people, and a decent small airport. So northern Vermont is not an airport desert. I would have to imagine the same is true for a number of other rural areas. A better map would be generated using county populations rather than just cities which are often a small portion of a regions area.

    Reply

  2. I live in Victoria, Tx. Why are you comparing us with larger cities when it only takes 10-15 minutes to get from one side to the other so we have a tiny airport with 1 terminal.

    Reply

    • Hi Hannah,

      The study compared which cities were furthest from an international airport, and the study concluded that Victora happened to be the furthest of all cities included in the study.

      Reply

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