Global city-regions: future territorial platforms of airline connectivity

By Ben Derudder

Airneth Column
December 2009
By Prof. Ben Derudder

Contrary to the ever-returning predictions about the imminent ‘end of geography’ because of new possibilities offered by information and communication technologies, geography is here to stay. Indeed, rather than becoming obsolete, space and spatial patterns are constantly being remade as the globalization of the economy and technological developments unfold. Perhaps the most dramatic shift in the recent spatial reorganization of our world is that the role of the inter-state system as chief territorial organization model is progressively being overtaken by an extensive archipelago of large city-regions. Indeed, far from being dissolved away as definite geographic entities by processes of globalization, city-regions are in general thriving at the present time. Thus recently emerging ‘superstar regions’ in the global economy are often associated with metropolises (e.g., Singapore and Abu Dhabi) rather than with countries per se (e.g., the rise of China is in large part the rise of the Pearl River Delta and the Yangtze River Delta centered on Hong Kong and Shanghai respectively). 

A variety of concepts has been devised to describe highly interconnected urban agglomerations such as Singapore and the Yangtze River Delta. Perhaps the most commonly used term is ‘global city-regions’ (GCRs). The common denominator of these GCRs is that they constitute dense and vast urban spaces that are bound up in myriad ways in far-flung relationships with other GCRs. They often emerge out of a large ‘national’ metropolitan area or adjoining sets of metropolitan areas, thus absorbing erstwhile hinterlands of uneven extent which themselves may already have been sites of scattered urban settlements. Although GCRs are invariably characterized by large populations, size is not their defining criterion. Rather, it is the strength and the global geography of a city-region’s connectivity with other city-regions that turns it into a GCR. Figure 1 and Table 1 summarizes this unfolding process of GCR formation by plotting/ranking cities according to their level of global connectivity. The latter measure is derived from the insertion of the overall city-region in the office networks of leading business service firms (financial, accountancy, management consultancy advertising and law services, see for more details).

The relevance of this evolution for the future of air transport in general may seem both obvious and far from new. After all, air transportation infrastructures have always unquestionably tied to key cities in the global economy., and it is therefore no surprise that Table 1 and Figure 1 broadly replicate rankings of the world’s major airports. There is, however, a twist to this story…

In the airline industry, deregulation and liberalization tendencies have resulted in the adoption of hub-and-spoke models because of actual or anticipated economies of scale. As a consequence, airline networks have been increasingly characterized by a more polycentric organization in which secondary cities such as Charlotte, Reykjavik and Cincinnati have come to play a major role as re-routers of traffic. In parallel, the airports of a number of major city-regions have also acquired far more connectivity than based on strict origin/destination demand (e.g. Amsterdam’s Schiphol and Atlanta’s Hartsfield as major hub airports). This boosting of an airport’s connectivity through attracting transfer passengers, in turn, is often part of a more overarching regional development project in which a well-connected airport is seen as a potential source of multiplier effects in the regional economy (cf. the ‘airport city’ concept).

There are, however, a number of powerful countertendencies at work. First, the copying of ‘airport city’-like models has led to the vigorous pursuit of hub strategies for and the associated development of business parks near most of the world’s key airports. The net result may well be a zero-sum game in that this implies that no single city-region will have a clear-cut edge over others, making the attraction of hub passengers an irrelevant development strategy altogether. A more generic relation between airport and regional development that starts from their mutual interdependencies rather than mere multiplier effects of the airport seems to be the way forward, then. 

And second, the point-to-point model seems to be making a comeback. Part of this resurgence can be attributed to the success of low-cost carriers, which tend to prefer this model for its ease of operation. However, this resurgence is also apparent in the airline sector more generally, and can be read from Boeing’s corporate vision. The philosophy behind the development of Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner, for instance, is based on the assumption that future connectivity growth will be under the form of point-to-point connectivity. Boeing hereby presumes that passengers will not want to put up with the hassles of changing planes, and also points to the considerable costs associated with building a sophisticated transfer system. The company substantiates its approach by pointing to the fact that since 1990 the number of city pairs more than 3000 nautical miles apart served by the world’s airlines has doubled, whereby this trend shows no sign of abating.

The net effect of (i) the increasing relevance of a two-way relation between transport infrastructure and regional development and (ii) the possible return to point-to-point models, then, is that airport connectivity may in the future become more rather than less reflective of its city-region’s networking capacity in strict terms (i.e. as origin/destination of flows). In that context, the map of GCRs may well be an even better reflection of the future geography of airline connectivity than mere common sense.

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