Summer is here, at least in the Northern Hemisphere. For many of us, it means going on vacation that may or may not involve flying and going through an airport. As you probably know, summer vacations create bigger traffic than usual and even congestion at airports, especially in major ones that add more seasonal charter flights to selected destinations, let alone in destinations that host major international events, such as the Pan American gams in Toronto this summer. In addition, airlines overbooking flights , as well as long lineups of people in terminal buildings may give us the illusion that airports that are already too “crowded” can only expand and grow, while in fact, that situation is not always right at all.
Around the world there have been quite few documented cases of airports that ceased their operations and were even abandoned because the industry is already mature (at least in North America an Europe) and not really growing anymore , besides East Asian markets. Here are some of the reasons why airports may cease operations one day:
1. Incorrect forecasts regarding the future demand – some airports were supposed to accommodate a much bigger number of passengers than what they ended up serving. Therefore, they were either abandoned or kept serving a very limited number of flights due to costs that were too high. One case is Montreal’s Mirabel Airport that is now serving only cargo flights, while passengers use the Montreal-Trudeau airport that is much closer to the city center. There are many factors that can influence an airport’s demand, and it’s interesting to hear more about Montreal’s case, as well as other airports here in this video by CTV News.
Other cases can be found in Spain, where an entire airport stopped operating shortly after inauguration due to a demand which was too low.
2. Migrating airports – sometimes, due to airport noise, capacity issues, and obsolete runways that cannot serve today’s aircrafts, a new airport is being built in order to serve a city. Hong Kong, Athens (Greece), and Denver (US) are all examples of such cases. Some places have been more successful than others in converting the land to other purposes, such as the case of Denver Stapleton Airport that is now a residential area. Other places are still struggling what to do with the land , such a the case of the old international airport in Athens the looks pretty spooky in the photos, just like any other place people used to attend but not anymore. Given the high economic uncertainty in Greece nowadays, it’s hard to even try and predict the new usage of that land.
3. Geopolitical changes – since national borders can change and have changed, and airports can be located in contested territories, their abandonment is sometimes inevitable. Sadly, the future of those facilities is highly uncertain, especially in areas where a resolution to the conflict is far from being implemented. Two good cases are the former Nicosia International Airport on the island of Cyprus, which ceased operations in 1974 after the Turkish invasion of Cyprus, and the former Atarot Airport in Jerusalem that is located in an area that was previously claimed by both Israel and the Palestinians in negotiation attempts towards a two-state solution, and ceased operations due to security issues during the second Intifadah in 2000.
All the cases above teach us that airports, just like other types of infrastructure , do have a lifespan that can sometimes be predictable, and sometimes not. It’s easier to see it nowadays based on the experience that the already-mature airport industry accumulated. Economic and social factors can cause all the reasons I mentioned, and it’s important to come up with a cradle-to-grave life cycle forecasts for airports that might terminate their operations at some point in the next decades (the foreseeable future), even if it sounds a bit counter-intuitive at this point in the present. There will be some tough questions to answers when trying to determine an airport’s lifespan (since each airport is different). Airports can be very costly to build and operate, and it’s almost impossible to repurpose them to serve other functions in the future.
The former Ellinikon International Airport in Athens
A few things planners will have to think about:
1. What are the best new land-use options in places where we had to shut-down old airports?
2. Can airports’ master plans include a component of end-of-life phase?
3. How far in advance should we plan for an airport’s end-of-life?
I would love to hear your opinions about these questions