Paulos Ashebir Lakew / Essays on Air Cargo Cost Structures, Airport Traffic, and Airport Delays: Panel Data Analysis of the U.S. Airline Industry

Name: Paulos Ashebir Lakew
Organization: University of California, Irvine
Supervisor: Jan K. Brueckner
Doctoral Committee:
Jan K. Brueckner (chair), Jean-Daniel Saphores, Amelia Regan
Email address:
Date of completion:
August 2014

Abstract of thesis: The present thesis is comprised of four essays that address important gaps in passenger- and cargo-airline research. Seminal studies in airline economics that rely on cross-section methods make critical homogeneity assumptions and preclude time-specific effects. The essays in this thesis use panel data, which allow for certain assumptions made by cross-sectional studies to be relaxed, while shedding light on the intertemporal features of air transport.

The first chapter investigates the cost structure of air cargo carriers by applying a total cost model used in passenger-airline studies. Using quarterly panel data (2003-2011) on the domestic operations and costs of FedEx Express and UPS Airlines, empirical results indicate that the air cargo industry exhibits increasing returns to traffic density and constant returns to scale. Accounting for carrier-specific differences in cost structure and network size, FedEx is found to be more cost efficient than UPS (a finding that is reversed when network size is not controlled). Individually, UPS exhibits substantial economies of density and constant returns to scale while FedEx's cost structure is characterized by weak economies of density and constant returns to scale. Both carriers exhibit economies of size.

The next three chapters embody papers that use quarterly panel data of city-level air traffic, airline delay, and socioeconomic variables. Spanning 10 years (2003-2012), the panel structure of the data permits the use of fixed effects to control for city-specific heterogeneity.

The second chapter presents a paper prepared for the Airport Cooperative Research Program (ACRP). The study demonstrates the within-city traffic impacts of urban size, employment composition, and wages, providing new insights into the determinants of passenger and air cargo traffic. The essay also confirms that airport traffic is proportional to population, and that service-sector employment and higher wages induce passenger travel and goods movement. A city's share of manufacturing employment, however, only impacts air cargo traffic. Passenger enplanements exhibit more sensitivity to the proportion of urban workers providing non-tradable services, compared to the share of workers in tradable service jobs.

The third chapter, co-authored with Andre Tok, examines the determinants of air cargo traffic in California. The study uses a shorter 7-year panel (2003-2009), and shows that service and manufacturing employment impact the volume of outbound air cargo. Total (domestic) air cargo traffic is found to grow faster than (proportionally to) population, while wages play a significant role in determining both total and domestic air cargo movement. Metro-level air cargo tonnage are also forecasted for the years 2010-2040, indicating that California's total (domestic) air cargo traffic will increase at an average rate of 5.9 percent (4.4 percent) per year in that period.

The final chapter is co-authored with Volodymyr Bilotkach, and it provides the first evidence on the impact of airline delays on urban-sectoral employment. Controlling for unobserved city-specific differences, the empirical estimates of the effects of air traffic on total employment are comparable to previously reported measures. However, service-sector employment is found to be less sensitive to air traffic than other studies suggested. New evidence confirming that delays have a negative impact on employment is also provided, a finding that is robust to various model specifications.

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