The Different Types of Airports

Every type of airport is defined, by law, as a place intended for the landing and takeoff of aircraft. The law also stipulates the buildings and rights of way needed to safely and effectively run the airport. However, the way they operate depends on the type of airport.

Under Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations, there are a wide variety of airports among the 3,300 airports that are open to the public and part of the FAA National Plan of Integrated Airport Systems (NPIAS).

Each airport category offers its own unique set of services and requires airport managers to take different approaches to management. Here are the different types of airports, as well as the facilities they use, the services they provide and the overall capacity.

Commercial Service Airports

The FAA classifies Commercial Service Airports as publicly owned airports that have at least 2,500 passenger boardings each year and receive scheduled passenger service.

Ownership of the airport can vary. They may be owned by cities, counties, states or the federal government, or some combination of two government entities. In many cases, a new government agency is formed to directly manage the airport, typically under the term “airport authority” or something similar.

Municipal or county governments run more than half of all large and medium commercial airports in the country, according to Princeton University. Types of airports are broken into many subcategories, as follows.

Non-Primary Commercial Service Airports

These airports are non-hub airports that have at least 2,500 passenger boardings but no more than 10,000.

Primary Commercial Service Airports

These are the airports that have more than 10,000 passenger boardings each year.

There are 378 primary airports. Most people are familiar with the larger airports, such as John F. Kennedy International in New York City, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, Chicago O’Hare International or Los Angeles International. However, primary airports also include airports in smaller cities and regional airports meant to provide flight availability to people in more rural regions.

Primary airports are broken down into four different subsets. They are qualified by the number of passenger boardings – more than 10,000 per year – and the percentage of annual passenger boardings nationwide.

  • Non-hub primary: less than 0.05%
  • Small hub: at least 0.05%, but less than 0.25%
  • Medium hub: at least 0.25%, but less than 1%
  • Large hub: 1% or more

Cargo Service Airports

To become designated as a cargo service airport, airports must have an annual landed total weight of more than 100 million pounds, according to the FAA.

The FAA defines landed weight as “the weight of aircraft transporting only cargo in intrastate, interstate, and foreign air transportation.” An airport can be both a commercial service and cargo service airport.

Within the cargo service airport category, there are reliever airports. These airports are designated as cargo airports by the FAA to relieve traffic from larger airports and improve access to general aviation for the community. These airports can be owned by government agencies or private companies.

General Aviation Airports

According to the FAA, there are more than 19,000 airports, heliports, seaplane bases and other landing facilities in the U.S. and its territories. The FAA has 3,330 within the NPIAS. Each is open to the public and eligible for federal funding.

Among these, 2,903 airports are what is known as general aviation airports. These airports are used for aeromedical flights, aerial firefighting, law enforcement and disaster relief.

In a review of these airports, the FAA reported that they are also used for

  • Remote population and island access
  • Self-piloted business flights
  • Flight instruction
  • Personal flying
  • Agricultural support
  • Tourism and access to special events

General aviation airports are divided into four categories:

  • National airports provide communities with access to national and international markets in multiple states and throughout the United States
  • Regional airports support regional economies by connecting communities to statewide and interstate markets
  • Local airports provide access to intrastate and interstate markets.
  • Basic airports link communities to the national airport system and support general aviation activities

Large vs. Small Airports

In addition to all the categories above, there are some major differences in the issues that airport managers face between overseeing large and small airports.

Large airports see much higher flight traffic volume, meaning a more complicated ground transportation system to support those flights and move people through the airport. Another issue they face is managing traffic at night, especially in large cargo service airports. Larger airports also can accommodate large aircraft.

Small airport managers will support more propeller-driven planes and much less overall traffic. Many small airports are also managed by Fixed Base Operators, which is a business that contracts with the airport to operate on its property and provide services such as maintenance and fuel to aircraft.

No matter the size or type of airport, airport management is a challenging and exciting career. It’s one that will face ever-evolving challenges as the air travel and cargo transportation industries continue to grow and evolve.

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