Passengers wait to board a Southwest Airlines flight at BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport’s Terminal A. The airport’s most recent economic impact study found an impact of $93 billion. (Maryland Aviation Administration photo)

It’s not surprising that large airports, smaller airports and even general aviation facilities are huge economic development generators to their cities, states and regions. A quick check of some national numbers reveals the power of their massive economic punch.

“Collectively, U.S. airports support some 11 million jobs and generate more than $1.3 trillion in economic output. Economic impact studies … help reaffirm just how important an airport is to a local community ― [they’re] often the single largest engine of economic growth for any city,” said Kevin Burke, president and CEO of the Washington, D.C.-based Airports Council International—North America. 

Therefore, it pays for airport executives to act locally and take full advantage of such a powerful regional presence. “An economic impact study,” said Burke, “helps build support for airport capital improvements plans, recruit and retain airlines, and demonstrates how the airport provides opportunities for local, minority and disadvantaged enterprises.”

BWI’s numbers

As for BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport, its most recent study was released in 2017: it revealed a $93 billion economic impact that created 196,488 total jobs, $4.1 billion in total earnings, and $591.9 million total state and local taxes.

One reason why an update has not been presented is, of course, the crater of the pandemic. However, while COVID-19’s aftermath “has loomed over the economy in recent years,” said Luke Schmidt, president of L.B. Schmidt & Associates, in Louisville, Kentucky, “in a market as large as Baltimore-Washington, the state should update the study more frequently.”

That said, in recent months passenger traffic at BWI Marshall has routinely approached levels not seen since before the pandemic. Airline seat capacity at BWI Marshall in May was nearly flat from the same month in 2019, but this past April, departing passenger traffic still climbed 17% over the same period in 2022; and the second busiest day at BWI Marshall since the start of the pandemic was May 18, with 34,190 departing passengers.

For that matter, “At any airport around the country, enplanements are hovering around back to where they were in 2019,” said Schmidt, to the point that there are more seats available and larger planes in use in many markets.

But the point is that access to an airport, “regardless of its size,” he said, “is absolutely imperative in today’s economic development mix, and BWI Marshall is ‘obviously a huge driver in Maryland’s economy.”

Moving product

Air cargo is also a critical part of an airport’s economic development profile and the local employment mix. For example, Louisville is the site of United Parcel Service’s UPS Worldport, the largest air cargo hub in the corporation, which features the world’s largest automated package sorting facility.

Even with greater automation, “it’s the largest private employer in the region with more than 25,000 workers. You would think the number of employees needed would drop, but the facility keeps adding workers for a variety of jobs,” said Schmidt.

Passenger and cargo usage are really related to the biggest selling point any airport offers economic developers, “which is access to the worldwide transportations network,” said Mike Hainsey, former executive director of Golden Triangle Regional Airport, in Columbus, Miss., and now a consultant. “That includes rail service,” which is part of the offerings at BWI Marshall with the Amtrak/MARC train station and the Baltimore Light Rail.

A key reason, said Hainsey, is that key industries often leave a region, such as textiles and furniture, which have moved from Northeast Mississippi to Asia or Mexico. “So we recruit companies that have international markets that require access to reach international headquarters and to bring customers here to see manufacturing operations.”

He said that connectivity has resulted in that small section of Northeast Mississippi receiving $7 billion in investment during the past 15 years from companies such as Airbus Helicopters, Yokohama Tire, Steel Dynamics and PACCAR, the parent company of Peterbilt and Kenworth trucks.

“If these companies couldn’t transport their customers here via our small regional airport, they couldn’t have located here,” Hainsey said, “and we’re only one hop to Hartsfield — Jackson Atlanta International Airport. These same rules apply to the large city and regional airports.” 

Key attraction

Schmidt said the larger airports around the country “are magnets for various companies, and the more flights an airport offers, the better for cities and states.”

In the case of BWI Marshall. “Southwest Airlines alone offers more than 229 flights to 71 cities per day,” he said. “When you add the other airlines’ flights to the mix, it demonstrates the connectivity BWI Marshall offers. Anytime a local economic development official can promote that angle, it’s a huge plus.”

That’s also part of the reason BWI Marshall’s long-standing reputation as the “Easy Come, Easy Go” airport, even with all of the airport’s and the area’s growth, still rings true. “Its easy access is good for the passengers,” Schmidt said. “It’s just a great facility.”