Airports, Siting and Financing of

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AIRPORTS, SITING AND FINANCING OF. Airport development in the United States involves federal, state, regional, and local governments. No single jurisdiction has complete control. Early airport development was predominantly private, but cities and counties became dominant after World War I. As of 1919, airports were limited to military fields plus private strips and a few basic municipal strips. Most were no more than waterways or short grass strips.

Aircraft technology quickly outpaced airport development. This became clear with the DC-2, the larger DC-3, and the Boeing-247, which made a passenger industry viable. Such aircraft required both longer and surfaced runways. Higher passenger loads also necessitated functional airport terminals. These needs, in turn, required more complex engineering, more land, and more money.

By the early 1930s, municipalities had built new airports in Atlanta, Baltimore, Boston, Buffalo, Detroit, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. Other large cities, though, remained far behind, including New York with its infamous Hadley Field, a small airport located in a New Jersey suburb and with no amenities. Still, the Air Commerce Act of 1926 expressly prohibited the federal government from establishing, operating, or maintaining civilian airports. It did, however, establish a basic licensing procedure and a system of lighted federal airways that enabled a pilot to fly at night from one light to the next. The 1926 legislation limited the federal airport role to "encouraging" construction and improvement and giving advice and assistance on design and engineering, if requested. Yet this gave the federal government a significant role, as the Aeronautics Branch in the Department of Commerce performed much of the engineering and design work for early airports.

The Great Depression spurred airport development. The Works Progress Administration financed new airports, including New York City's La Guardia, which opened in 1939. World War II, however, slowed the development of civil airports. But, after the war, civilian aircraft under development just before the war entered service; these included the DC-4 and the Boeing-247. The DC-6, DC-7, and Boeing 347 soon followed them. Then, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, came the jet age with Boeing's 707 and DC-8.

Wartime disruption followed by new, larger aircraft made airports obsolete once again. Cities and counties responded with major expansion of existing airports and the replacement of some older, in-town airports, including Chicago's O'Hare in 1955. Congress responded in 1946 with new federal aid for airport construction. Congressional funding was erratic for the first two decades, but it accelerated after 1970 and became a significant influence on the construction of new runways, taxiways, lighting, gates, and other improvements. After about 1960, most federally supported construction was done at existing airports. The United States built just three large airports in the four subsequent decades: Dulles International (1962); Dallas–Fort Worth International (1974); and Denver International (1995).

By the 1950s, airports were recognized as regional economic assets, but they also posed regional problems, including noise and road congestion. These issues led to complex planning requirements, environmental requirements, and new governing structures.

At the end of the twentieth century, many of the largest airports were owned and operated by special purpose agencies created by state legislatures. Some agencies were responsible for several airports and even several modes of transport, as with the Massachusetts Port Authority. The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey illustrates an even more complex structure. The two states jointly created this multimodal authority, which owned and operated JFK International, La Guardia, Newark International, and Teterboro airports, plus bridges, tunnels, and the Port of New York. More commonly, however, special purpose authorities were limited to one or more airports, with no role in other modes of transport. Finally, cities and counties owned major airports, as in Chicago, Kansas City, Los Angeles, Miami, and elsewhere.

The federal government owns and operates no civilian airports. It once owned and operated Washington National Airport and, later, Dulles International Airport in northern Virginia. However, in 1986, Congress determined that those airports were regional assets and that federal ownership was inappropriate. Consequently, Congress leased their operation to the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, a new multistate authority with board members appointed by Virginia, the District of Columbia, and the president of the United States. The federal government also plays no role in initiating airport construction or expansion, which is done by airport sponsors. Washington's role in aviation focuses on the design and production of safe aircraft, safe operation, proper maintenance, and operation of the air traffic control system and air navigation facilities. But the federal presence in airport development remained strong. Although airports rely mostly on landing fees and concessions (restaurants, bars, and other retail activities) to finance capital improvements and operating expenses, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) provides significant financial assistance to airport "sponsors" for air-side construction. In addition, Federal Airport Improvement Program (AIP) projects entail comprehensive planning requirements that involve all jurisdictions in an urban region. The FAA also establishes and enforces minimal safety and environmental standards at airports that have scheduled airline traffic. Furthermore, it establishes criteria for relocation assistance. In each case, states may impose additional requirements.

If AIP funds are involved, as they usually are in major projects, airport sponsors must meet federal safety requirements for such things as fuel handling, signage, and fire and rescue. Projects also must pass environmental assessments made under the Environmental Protection Act of 1970 and must meet federal planning requirements, complete with public hearings and eventual project approval by regional planning bodies. Again, additional state requirements may have to be met.

Airport projects in the twenty-first century faced technical and political hurdles at all stages. Most political barriers were at the local level, where government is especially sensitive to public concerns about such matters as noise and congestion. However, airport development faced complex public demands at all levels of government. Constituencies could demand frequent and conveniently scheduled flights, fewer delays, less noise, safety at any cost, and low fares, stipulations that are often mutually exclusive. Given such competing public demands, securing approval for airport design, location, and operation was a monumental task.


Komos, Nick. Bonfires to Beacons: Federal Civil Aviation Policy under the Air Commerce Act, 1926–1938. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1989.

———. The Cutting Air Crash: Case Study in Early Federal Aviation Policy. Washington, D.C.: Department of Transportation, Government Printing Office, 1984.


See alsoAir Transportation and Travel ; Aircraft Industry ; Federal Aviation Administration ; Noise Pollution ; Port Authority of New York and New Jersey .