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airport, also called air terminal, aerodrome, or airfield, site and installation for the takeoff and landing of aircraft. An airport usually has paved runways and maintenance facilities and serves as a terminal for passengers and cargo.

By rahilPublished 2 years ago 7 min read

Evolution of airports

The requirements for airports have increased in complexity and scale since the earliest days of flying. Before World War II the landing and takeoff distance of most passenger-transport aircraft was at most 600 metres (2,000 feet). Additional clear areas were provided for blind landings or bad-weather runs, but the total area involved rarely exceeded 500 acres (200 hectares).

It was not until the general introduction of heavy monoplanes for transport, such as the Douglas DC-3, during the late 1930s that extensive takeoff and landing distances were needed. Even then, the prewar airfields at New York City (La Guardia), London (Croydon), Paris (Le Bourget), and Berlin (Tempelhof) were laid out on sites close to the city centres. Because even transport aircraft of the period were relatively light, paved runways were a rarity. Croydon, Tempelhof, and Le Bourget, for example, all operated from grass strips only. Early airports were also major centres of leisure activity, often attracting more visitors than passengers. In 1939 La Guardia Airport attracted almost 250,000 visitors per month, reaching a peak of 7,000 in one day, compared with a maximum daily throughput of only 3,000 passengers. In 1929 Berlin’s airport reported 750,000 visitors and boasted a restaurant that could seat 3,000 people on the roof of the passenger terminal. The status of prewar airports as major social centres was reflected in their design, especially where the requirements of catering, observation decks, and parking were paramount. Indeed, the requirements of aircraft and passengers were not at all dominant at early airfields.

Much long-distance air transport was handled by the large seaplanes known as flying boats or clippers. These aircraft, though slow and of limited range, offered a level of comfort that was necessary for long-distance travel. Air terminal facilities were necessarily constructed close to large open stretches of water. La Guardia Airport and Santos Dumont Airport in Rio de Janeiro are examples of airports that still operate on sites originally chosen for their ability to handle large seaplanes. The large facilities at Southampton Water in the United Kingdom have now disappeared, but the artificial lake at Linate Airport near Milan, Italy, is still to be found close to the present administration facilities.

The vast majority of airfields throughout the world are still relatively simple facilities. Even now, many have unpaved runways or at most lightly paved runways with tiny terminal or administration buildings, a rudimentary control tower, and crude landing aids. Such facilities can deal only with light aircraft and a negligible flow of passengers or freight. Heavy air traffic, on the other hand, is now almost entirely handled by sophisticated airport facilities that can accommodate the needs of crew, passengers, and freight and the great range of aircraft types that have evolved to meet the needs of modern air transport and general aviation.

Know how connecting flights contribute to the rapid growth in global connectivity

Know how connecting flights contribute to the rapid growth in global connectivity

Learn how commercial air travel increases global connectivity.

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More than 100 airports around the world now handle at least 10 million passengers each per year; nearly half of these are in the United States. Dozens of airports regularly move more than 30 million passengers on a yearly basis, and almost a dozen, ranging from the Hartsfield Atlanta International Airport in the U.S. state of Georgia to London Heathrow Airport in the United Kingdom to Beijing Capital International Airport in China, each handle more than 50 million. The Memphis (Tennessee) International Airport, the home airport of the FedEx Corporation’s cargo service, and the Hong Kong International Airport are the world’s largest cargo shippers, each of which handled nearly four million tons in 2007. In order to meet the increasing demand for air travel, large transport aircraft powered by multiple jet and turboprop engines have been built. Such aircraft require extensive ground facilities, runways, taxiways, fire-fighting and rescue services, passenger- and cargo-handling facilities, access to car parking and public transport, lighting, navigational and approach aids, and various support facilities such as catering, meteorology, and governmental inspection. In order to be attractively convenient, the complex of activities and facilities that make up a modern airport must be located sufficiently close to the main centres of world population. At the same time, they must be adequately distant, so that the environmental problems associated with the noise of large aircraft and the activities of large numbers of passengers, workers, and visitors do not become intolerable to the cities that are served.

Modern airports

The largest airports in the world employ more than 100,000 workers each. They are immensely complex entities with regard to the physical facilities that they comprise, the organizations that are active within their boundaries, and the services that are provided in conjunction with their operation.

Physical facilities include runways, taxiways, aprons, and strips, which are used for the landing and takeoff of aircraft, for the maneuvering and positioning of aircraft on the ground, and for the parking of aircraft in order to load and discharge passengers and cargo. For the safe landing and takeoff of aircraft, lighting and radio navigational aids are provided. These are supplemented by airfield markings, signs and signals, and air traffic control facilities. Support facilities on the airside of the field include meteorology, fire and rescue, power and other utilities, aircraft maintenance, and airport maintenance. Landside facilities are the passenger and cargo terminals and the access system, which includes parking, roads, public transport facilities, and loading and unloading areas.

Many organizations are involved in the operation of a modern airport. Overall management is usually in the control of an organization, authority, or company that holds a license to operate the facility. This license is granted subject to a judgment by the national civil aviation authorities that the managing body is fit and competent to run an airport within national and, if applicable, international laws governing safety and operations. While overall responsibility for efficient, safe, and legal operation lies with the airport management, many of the individual services at an airport are provided by other organizations. Such organizations include airlines; air traffic control authorities; ground handling companies; fixed-base operators; concessionaires; security organizations; governmental agencies responsible for customs, immigration, health control, and police; support companies providing flight catering, fueling, aircraft engineering, and maintenance; aero clubs; and flying schools. Since the early 1980s, when privatization began to sweep through civil aviation, terminal-operation companies have also become more frequent, such as those that own terminals in Birmingham, Eng.; Brussels; and Toronto.

Airport services related to the aircraft are frequently referred to as airside. Many of these services are concentrated on the apron, or ramp, which is that part of the operational surface adjacent to the terminals where aircraft are maneuvered or parked. They include the apron handling of aircraft, airside passenger transfer to the aircraft, the handling of baggage and cargo, aircraft fueling, catering and cabin cleaning, engine starting, deicing, ground power and air-conditioning, and minor maintenance engineering. Other airside services are runway inspection, lighting and navigational aids, fire fighting and rescue, airside maintenance, and air traffic control. Among the landside services are those related to ground passenger handling; these include check-in, security, customs and immigration, baggage delivery, information, catering, cleaning and maintenance, shops and concessionary facilities, automobile rental, ground transportation, porters, special help for the elderly and handicapped, automobile parking, and public transportation (including taxis). In addition, because airports employ such a large number of workers, extensive provision must be made for their daily requirements.

Passengers waiting at an airport baggage carousel for their bags to be delivered from the cargo hold of an airplane.

Passengers waiting at an airport baggage carousel for their bags to be delivered from the cargo hold of an airplane.

© Jonathan Feinstein/Shutterstock.com

Site selection

Aeronautical and environmental factors

Selecting a site for a new airport, or evaluating how well an existing site can be expanded to provide a new major airport, is a complex process. A balance must be achieved between aeronautical and air-transport requirements and the impact of the airport on its environment.

From an aeronautical viewpoint, the basic requirement of an airport is that it have a relatively flat area of land sufficiently large to accommodate the runways and other facilities and that this area be in a locality free from such obstructions to air navigation as mountains and tall buildings.


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