Aerotropolis Concept in Florida

Aerotropolis Concept in Florida

Dawn of a new era in Florida’s urban development?

Florida’s aviation industry packed a nearly $115 billion economic punch in a 2010 study. With new numbers on the horizon (August), the economic impact no doubt will be higher.

What is happening on the ground for our airports, and should the concept of an “aerotropolis” be on our collective radar?

Florida is the only state with four large hub airports based on passenger volume — Miami International, Orlando International, Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International and Tampa International. It boasts 19 commercial airports that flew nearly 145 million passengers last year, second highest in the nation. There also are more than 2,000 aviation-related companies employing almost 82,000. Not bad for a once-sleepy peninsula that is only 22nd among states in geographic size but that is set to pass New York as the country’s third-most populous state.

Florida’s aviation industry is definitely ready to ascend even higher, but is the sky really the limit or can the state’s airports go farther? And what role will the aerotropolis play?

Master plans are certainly “flying.”
Tampa Blue


Before tackling the aerotropolis concept, it’s important to understand that the common denominator for all the state’s airports is connectivity. Today’s consumers want instant gratification and that includes convenience at every stage of the trip: in the terminal, in the air and on the ground. A global economic powerhouse must have the infrastructure in place to move people within the state, across the U.S. and around the globe.

Connectivity starts when people walk into the terminal. Both Orlando International Airport and Tampa International Airport have plans for people movers. At OIA there are plans in place for a South Airport Complex that will include a direct connection to the new 2,400-space parking garage, a ground transportation center and a people mover station. In Tampa International’s 20-year, $4.1-billion master plan — the biggest expansion in its history — there also exists a 1.3-mile people mover to connect the current terminal to the new Gateway Center, a $942 million, five-story, 2.3-million-square-foot facility being built just south of the airport.

And that’s just for starters. Rail centers also are important, and Florida is on the fast track.

“Virtually every conversation that we have about our people mover complex and the intermodal facility, there is a discussion about SunRail because folks want to connect to the airport,” says Phillip Brown, executive director of the Greater Orlando Aviation Authority.

All Aboard Florida also is a literal linchpin in this new world of connectivity. A commuter railroad connecting Orlando and Miami with planned stops in Fort Lauderdale and West Palm Beach, this public-private partnership is designed to provide access to international airports, seaports and existing and future transit systems, such as SunRail in Orange County, and Metrorail and Metromover in Dade County. The route will utilize 195 miles of an existing, active rail corridor along the eastern part of the state (think Henry Flagler) with an additional 40 new route miles parallel to State Route 528 to connect to OIA.

It is estimated that 50 million business and leisure travelers either drive or fly annually between Orlando and Miami. The organization says it has the potential to take as many as three million cars off the road each year, with obvious benefits to travelers and the environment.

“When you’re a strategic intermodal gateway, be it port or airport to Florida, whether it’s Port Canaveral, PortMiami, or Port Everglades or anywhere else and the airports like Orlando International, Miami, Tampa and Fort Lauderdale, etc., and start connecting the dots, that’s where the money is being prioritized to be spent to make Florida more competitive with our neighbors on global connectivity,” says Bill Brooks, P.E., Southeast Division aviation leader and associate vice president for HNTB.

An airport also has to be able to grow with its metropolitan area.

“We can fit JFK, Miami International and LAX, all three in our landmass,” says Brown.

At nearly 14,000 acres, OIA is the nation’s third-largest airport in terms of geographic size and the largest in Florida. Size matters.

Where does all the airport connectivity and development lead? Depending on whom you ask — the best example is an aerotropolis, a paradigm shift from city airport to airport city.


The term was first proposed by New York commercial artist Nicolas DeSantis, whose drawing of a skyscraper rooftop airport in the city was presented in the November 1939 issue of Popular Science.

There is no uniform definition of an “aerotropolis.” Wikipedia, unofficial arbiter of the Millennial generation, defines it as “an urban plan in which the layout, infrastructure and economy is centered on an airport … .” Dr. Jean-Paul Rodrigue of Hofstra University offers a more detailed definition that includes references to concentric rings, distribution centers, logistics complexes, manufacturing plants, all ringed by office parks, hotels, restaurants, civic centers and “aerolanes.” And, then there is Dr. John D. Kasarda, the guru (many might call spokesman) of aerotropolises.



The preeminent voice of the aerotropolis concept, Kasarda is a professor at the Kenan-Flagler Business School at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where he directs the Center for Air Commerce. An author and writer on the subject, as well as a consultant, Kasarda started focusing heavily on aerotropolises in 2000 based on his prior research on airport-driven economic development. It has been reported he honed in on the concept in China.

According to Kasarda, airports have evolved as drivers of business location and urban development in the 21st century in the same way as did highways in the 20th century, railroads in the 19th century and seaports in the 18th century.



Kasarda asserts some strong beliefs about the importance of these airport cities on his website. In his opinion, China, India and Middle Eastern countries view airports as the primary infrastructure necessary to compete in the 21st century.

“We view them more as nuisances and environmental threats to be controlled. And therein lies our challenge and peril. If we continue to view airports that way, then we’ve already capitulated. We’re already out of the game,” he says.

In Kasarda’s book Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next (published in 2011) it states that while many think globalization started with the creation of the Internet, it really started with the advent of long-distance air travel.

In media interviews, Kasarda has said, “These new airports have 50-year plans. You have to look at the development of an aerotropolis in terms of decades. The idea is that the airport will grow and it will serve as a magnet for development.”

While the term has been around for some time, not to mention the concept, the U.S. held its first aerotropolis conference in Dallas in 2013. The second annual Aerotropolis Americas conference will be held Dec. 8-10 in Denver.

“I attended the conference in Dallas last year; I’m going to attend the conference in Denver, as well,” says Mark Busalacchi, director of business development at Southwest Florida International Airport in Fort Myers. “It’s certainly something we’re interested in learning more about and becoming more engaged in.

“I think the message I took away from last year’s conference was … you’ve got to get the engagement of the entire community and the stakeholders. It’s got to be a coordinated effort. Everyone’s got to be singing off the same page of the hymnal.”

Brooks believes we essentially have the aerotropolis model already in the state.

“I think Florida has its version well underway with aerotropolis; I don’t think any of us have heard that term actually used for Orlando International Airport, but it is certainly something that in its own right, with Medical City and the east airfield, is all synergistically tied together and collectively would make a major, major economic impact for the future,” he says.

Brooks also looks at the might of both the Orlando and Tampa metros. “Welcome to Orlampa. The region really is moving in that direction … and what better example of an airport city, or an aerotropolis, as one with airports on both ends,” cites Brooks.



While there are many definitions and opinions on the subject of airports and their role in the global economy, there is no question that Florida’s airports are expanding and accommodating more travelers.

The Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport, located in Panama City, will be served by Bay Line and CSX rail, Interstate 10 and Port Panama City, which serves as a foreign trade zone. It is also in close proximity to Tyndall Air Force Base and Naval Support Panama City. The West Bay Sector Plan is a 75,000-acre, multiuse, master planned development anchored by the airport.

In Lee County, the Southwest Florida International Airport is one of the busiest single-runway airports in the country. Located at the midpoint between Miami and Tampa, the airport has plans for its Skyplex development.

It spans 1,100 acres, 260 of which are zoned for aviation businesses fronting the airport. A foreign trade zone, quick access to Interstate 75, 10 colleges and universities and an infrastructure in place make it an intriguing choice for companies. Hertz announced in May 2013 its relocation from New Jersey and the building of a new world headquarters in nearby Estero.

“There’s talk of another corporate relocation on the heels of the Hertz deal. I think from an economic development standpoint, things in this area, specifically, are really starting to come together. I think more things like that need to happen, for the aerotropolis concept to really start to take shape,” says Busalacchi.


Global reach is vital for a successful airport city.Florida continues to court international travelers and international businesses. Even our regional airports have international carriers. Icelandair, ArkeFly (Amsterdam), charter SSTAir (Brazil) fly out of Orlando Sanford International Airport; and Southwest Florida International Airport counts Airberlin and Air Canada among its international carriers.

Airports across the state are actively seeking more direct international flights.

“International air service by itself is about $2 billion of annual economic impact in Central Florida,” says Brown. A delegation from Orlando visited the Middle East in late April to meet with airline representatives in the United Arab Emirates and Turkey.

“Since I’ve been at Tampa International Airport, we’ve added Edelweiss Air’s nonstop flights to Zurich, our first direct flight to continental Europe in 15 years. … We are working hard to bring more, and we’re confident that we have the support from the community we need to attract more direct international service to the Tampa Bay area,” says Joseph Lopano, CEO of Tampa International Airport.

Both airports are succeeding — this past spring Copa Airlines starting flying directly to Panama City from TIA and most recently OIA offers direct service to Oslo twice a week on Norwegian Air.

Miami International Airport, gateway to Latin America, is the second-busiest international airport in the U.S., behind New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport.

Every day brings with it announcements of new carriers or new incentives to attract them.


terminal 1 - DDF Gold Shop

Rising Aerotropolises

With China’s 1.37 billion population and rapid urbanization taking place, it is ripe for development of aerotropolises as is India with its population of 1.25 billion.

China is building 100 airports, to be completed by 2020, dozens of which will be aerotropolises.

Dubai’s aerotropolis is the world’s largest, situated perfectly between the East and the West.

It is often referred to as an airport with an emirate attached.

Amenities include three hotels, restaurants, shops, open-air gardens, Internet and video games, and cascading waterfalls —to name just a few. It also has extensive road and rail connections.

Like any important sociological concept gaming the future, there are lots of opinions.

Some of these airport cities are sprouting up organically, some have heavy government financing behind them and some are planned outright. What is clear cut is they are being built with impunity in developing nations — especially in Asia.



Closer to home, a handful of airports are actively working to position themselves as aerotropolises.

Memphis International Airport has branded itself “America’s Aerotropolis” due to its largest employer FedEx, making it the world’s second busiest for cargo.

Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport is essentially proclaiming itself an aerotropolis, and one state to our north, the Atlanta Aerotropolis Alliance is looking to leverage Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport (a closed Ford plant adjacent to the facility has been purchased and Porsche is moving its North American headquarters near the airport).

Florida has its own big plans. The Florida Legislature is investing $325 million in aviation improvements across the state.

“Before the end of this decade, I would expect you very possibly can see a true intermodal facility at Orlando International that connects air, rail and ground transportation at the airport, which is a concept that you don’t see in any airports in Florida,” said Brown.

While both Orlando and Tampa have huge expansion plans, their leaders share a similar vision that the growth must be measured and in step with passenger volume.

Other voices around the state echo that sentiment.

When it comes to aerotropolis planning Dr. Jerry Parrish of Tallahassee-based Center for Competitive Florida is a strong advocate of a conservative approach.

“As the chief economist of Tax Watch, we would certainly want to look at what others are doing and if it looks like a successful model, we would want to look at it; but to be a first mover like what they’re trying to do in Georgia, certainly we want to let them make the mistake so that we can learn from their mistake rather than make our own first,” says Parrish.

In England, with its rich history, the shiny new aerotropolis concept has many naysayers.

In the April 28, 2011, London Review of Books, Will Self, author and professor at Brunel University, expressed even harsher skepticism. In critiquing Kasarda’s book, Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next, he termed the book a “scientific romance masquerading” as urban theory. According to Self: “What he (Kasarda) seems not to have grasped is the oneiric character of progress-without-end itself, and so he and Lindsay [co-author] remain slumbering on the redeye flight to the apocalypse. Dream on.”

Self isn’t the only Brit to attack Kasarda’s vision. Rowan Moore, of the UK’s Observer, in his March 2013 column also took Kasarda’s theories about aerotropolises to task.

However, in June 2014, Dubai dethroned Heathrow as the busiest international hub in the world. Ten years ago it ranked No. 45.

Thought provoking, indeed.

— Joel Brandenberger contributed to this story.

This article was printed as “City Airport vs Airport City.”