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Regional airports often not a booster of economic growth

11 January 2022

Small, regional airports lead an insecure existence but, at the same time, are often seen as boosting the regional economy. This image is not true, conclude Felix Pot and Sierdjan Koster of the University of Groningen. The economic geographers admittedly confirm the connection between air travel and economic growth in a general sense, but also conclude that, in most cases, the growth around smaller airports is limited.

In addition, economic growth generally does not follow the growth of air travel, but vice versa. Regional airports are, therefore, not boosters of economic growth. In discussions around supporting regional airports, the researchers propose that societal interests should be centred instead of economic interest, which is currently the case.

Economic growth

There is no doubt that air travel and economic growth are intertwined. This relationship is, however, much weaker for smaller airports than for bigger ones with a multitude of routes and connections. The direction of the connection is also not uniform. Air travel can promote economic growth, but it may well also be the case that economic growth stimulates air travel.

For bigger airports, the most significant indicators point to a self-strengthening process, in which economic growth and the growth of the airport boost one another. For smaller airports, the growth of air travel is, in most cases, a consequence of economic growth. Only in economically lagging but highly-populated regions, due, for example, to the presence of a central city, is there any indication that smaller airports with a stable network can stimulate economic growth.

Right to exist

The academic findings on the limited economic importance of regional airports does not automatically mean that they do not have the right to exist. It does, however, mean that discussions around supporting these airports should be held differently, according to the researchers. Pot: ‘Arguments regarding the societal importance of an airport must be central. Such as those relating to the accessibility of remote areas, supporting the regional image, working towards spreading out passengers, or other airport functions such as accommodating a flying school or an air ambulance. The decision of whether or not to support a small airport is a political one, in which all societal interests must be weighed. However, a purely economic cost-benefit analysis will, in most cases, wind up with a negative result.’

Further information

Read more about the research: ‘Small airports: Runways to regional economic growth?’

Contact: Felix Pot and Sierdjan Koster

Last modified:10 January 2022 3.46 p.m.
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