Sky Infrastructure, pt. 1

Editors note: File under 'Territorial Infrastuctures'; a course taught by Neeraj Bhatia at Cornell University in the Spring of 2013. 

Written by: Hana Svatos-Raznjevic
All Drawings courtesy of: Hana Svatos-Raznjevic


Air transport is one of the least visible, but most critical components of the global economy. Although air transportation has a highly invisible infrastructure, it moves a wide array of passengers and freight between nations and across continents, becoming a critical factor in shaping global production and markets. The concentration (and fragmentation) of the production process is reflected in airport locations as economic nodes where market forces and traffic patterns often correlate. The uneven economic and social conditions of the globalized world, as well as strategic and political factors shape air transport routes and map the skies. Even to this day, a few large areas of airspace are forbidden to carriers on political grounds. Together with tourism, these routes create a network of hubs; central city nodes control the air space and create a flight-route control system. Geographically, this is the key outcome of the Airline Deregulation Act and is known as the hub-and-spoke system of networks centered on a major airport where a single airline is often dominant. Hub-and-spoke systems structure the flight patterns with the use of intermediate hubs connecting to a larger regional or international air system longitudinal (Dubai, Reykjavik) or latitudinal (Panama City) intermediacy. 

Challenging aspects of this central networking system are the complexities of time and flight scheduling as well as hub traffic congestion and passenger capacity. Short-range aircrafts with capacities of 30-100 passengers operate regionally on small markets and feed the hub airports, or sometimes create a point-to-point service between large city pairs. Medium and large-range aircrafts operate on a high demand level servicing directly between the hubs. Despite the centrality of the hub system, most medium and large-sized airlines still have at least some international routes. Nevertheless, around 90% of the total air traffic is generated by domestic flights of the United States, Canada, Russia, Japan, Brazil and Australia, with the US alone generating 70% of the global domestic air traffic.

Through increasingly long-haul nonstop services between a growing set of city-pairs rather than through increased aircraft speed, air transportation continues to shrink the world. These long-range flights servicing the world’s metropolises are both a response and a driver for globalization. The capacity of air transportation lowers the cost of long-distance transportation and fosters economic globalization in an uneven fashion as manufacturers of high-value electronics heavily rely on air transport to tie spatially disaggregated operations. The high value-to-weight ratio demands fast delivery of parcels. Today, about half of all specialized cargo cruises through the sky. FedEx and UPS operate the largest freighter fleets in the world, operating 338 and 243 freighters respectively. In comparison, the largest passenger airline fleet is American Airlines, which operates nearly 700 aircraft worldwide. Increasingly more centrally located airports specialize as cargo-only with the intent of handling a large share of freight and distributing it across the globe, especially within the United States. Pacific Asian airports, on the other hand, including Hong Kong, Singapore and Inchon are becoming more cargo-oriented operating as “air freight gateways” for Asian exports. The air transportation’s share of world trade in goods measures 40% in value of international trade, but only 2% by weight. Furthermore, freight in a passenger-cargo combination can account up to 45% of an airline revenue, so transcontinental and intercontinental travel is becoming more competitive for increasingly shorter trips, further increasing the spatial segregation of production.



Airports have become compressed and intensified articulation points in the circulatory system of the global economy. They mediate currents of people and goods, create micro-cities within larger cities, and even become worlds in themselves. This role determines airports' spatial organization into a sequence of linear procedures and circulation networks supplied with all necessary programs, creating a globalized version of urban space ironically cut off from surrounding urban and local context.The intensified space of the airport creates a condition supported not only by physical infrastructure but also by its occupants. The human network of the airport consists of a corporate structure composed of high-tech technicians, engineers, market experts, etc. all supporting the primary and the most frequent users of the air transportation: the third culture population. Defined by the mobility pattern and the experiences of living between worlds and cultures, the third culture population is a product of the globalized world and supported primarily by the airport infrastructure across the globe. These “citizens of the world” are a physical manifestation of the uneven economic gap; in contrast to these hyper-mobile “frequent flyers” and businessmen, around 90% of the world has never set foot on an airplane.

The air transportation system network not only ties into these social and economic networks but also into a complex system of physical networks. The entire system is fed by supporting sectors such as the oil industry, the manufacturing industry, big electronics and high-value corporations, airport facilities and networks of distribution systems supported by supply chain management practices (entertainment, food, retail chains), GPS and satellite infrastructure, weather stations, and existing infrastructures such as ground transportation and urban settings and conditions, all serving the global market economy. An important aspect of the international airline network is the recent formation of airline alliances. Alliances are voluntary agreements of cooperation between two or more airlines as a way to enhance the competitive positions of the partners, especially in cases where the persistence of restrictive bilateral air service agreements make it difficult for an airline to expand on its own. Alliance members benefit from greater scale economies, lower transaction and operational costs, and a sharing of risks, while remaining commercially independent. The alliance also optimizes the travelers’ transfers and reduces time travel. In that way, the alliance creates new lines of relationships in the economy network of the air transportation system.

The complexity of the relationship between air transportation, world economy and market, and globalization poses a question of their resulting interdependency. While the support systems and available natural resources are shrinking, the growing speed of globalization is apparent through the increase in demand for air transportation, the growth in tourism based on airport positions (five major Disney theme parks near one of the world’s 30 busiest airports: Orlando International Airport, LA International Airport, Paris-Charles de Gaulle, Tokyo-Haneda, and the newest park in Hong Kong which shares Lantau island with the most expensive airport in history), the growing third culture population, and the increasing importance of time-based competition, which all support the future growth of air transportation infrastructure.

The invisible infrastructure in the sky is the primary support of globalization and physical connectivity; however, the sky is getting congested. Might support systems become agents of change improving economic attributes, liberalization, institutional and political reforms, supporting infrastructure investment, macroeconomic stability, growing consumer demand, and changes in management practices?




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