Shoeb K Zainuddin
The term aerotropolis is now very much part of the English lexicon. The creator of the concept, University of North Carolina’s Professor John Kasarda, argues that an aerotropolis is a new urban form placing airports in the center with cities growing around them, connecting workers, suppliers, executives and goods to the global marketplace. He talks to GlobeAsia in an exclusive interview.
What is an aerotropolis?
An aerotropolis is a city built around an airport offering its businesses speedy connectivity to their suppliers, customers, and enterprise partners nationally and worldwide. Many of these businesses are much more dependent on access to distant suppliers or customers than to those located nearby. The aerotropolis also contains the full set of commercial facilities that support both aviation-linked businesses and the millions of air travelers who pass through the airport annually. These include, among others, hotels, convention and exhibition complexes, office parks, shopping, dining and recreation venues, and logistics and distribution facilities. As an increasing number of businesses and commercial service providers cluster around airports, an aerotropolis forms, becoming a major urban destination where air travelers and locals alike can work, shop, meet, exchange knowledge, conduct business, eat, sleep and be entertained without going more than 15 minutes from the airport.
What is driving aerotropolis development in and around the world?
It is powerful trends in aviation, globalization, and time-based competition. These, in turn, reflect, one, the major increase in long-range jet aircraft connecting people and businesses world-wide and two, new supply chain processes whose parts and components are manufactured in a half-dozen different countries, assembled in a seventh country and often distributed in an eighth. Three, the demand for high-value perishables such as fresh fish, fresh cut flowers, and biopharma products in far away markets; four, the growth of world tourism and of aviation intensive producer services such as finance, marketing, and consulting and five, our “must have it now” consumer age where even if people can wait, they won’t wait for the products they order from distant locations via the internet.
The upshot is that airports and their surrounding areas have become magnets for time-critical nationally- and globally-linked businesses of all types, giving rise to a new urban form – the aerotropolis.
This is beginning to happen in Indonesia, but in a largely unplanned, spontaneous, haphazard manner. The aerotropolis strategy counters this haphazard development by bringing together airport planning, urban planning, and business site planning to ensure that aviation-linked development is organized, economically efficient, attractive and environmentally sustainable.
Why is the aerotropolis important to business competitiveness?
Over a third of the value of all world trade moves by air. As Indonesia’s export economy shifts more toward high-tech products such as microelectronics, pharmaceuticals, medical instruments and aerospace components, and to high-value perishables, air cargo will become critical to the nation’s competitiveness. As important as the internet is, the Web will not move a box. And business remains a “contact sport.” Setting up these enterprise networks and closing the business deal still typically requires face-to-face contacts. So, as more goods and people move around the world, competitive firms and cities will be those that connect their products and people faster and more efficiently to the global marketplace. This is the role of the aerotropolis.
Is Indonesia being surpassed by its competitors in airport and aerotropolis development?
Yes. China, India, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea and other Asian nations are investing heavily in developing airports and aerotropolises as competitive infrastructure for 21st century commerce. So are nations in the Middle East and elsewhere. Many of their largest airports are more modern, attractive, and efficient than most in Indonesia, reflecting these huge investments.
China alone plans to invest nearly $250 billion in its aviation sector in the next five years, including over 50 new commercial airports. India is building 20 new airports and modernizing 58 others.
Even more is being invested in business and infrastructure development around these airports, creating aerotropolises. Indonesia is recognizing the competitive value of the new aerotropolis model and making plans to implement it in Jakarta and elsewhere in an effort to catch up with its regional and global competitors.
Doesn’t aviation and the aerotropolis largely support the elite?
Quite the contrary, both contribute substantially to those at the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder. These include many fishermen, maids and kitchen help in hotels, taxi and truck drivers, factory and warehouse workers and others who produce and handle time-critical products or serve air travelers. Research has shown that jobs created in the aerotropolis are distributed fairly equitably across education and skill levels.
Will rising jet fuel prices curtail the potential of aviation and the aerotropolis?
Only if jet fuel reaches price levels that no one really anticipates. There is no statistical relationship between jet fuel prices and either passenger volumes or cargo volumes on an annual basis. Air travel, in fact, is much cheaper today than it was decades ago when jet fuel was far less expensive. And in the past two years, while jet fuel prices rose to exceptionally high levels, passenger and cargo volumes expanded strongly in the face of these rising fuel prices.
Peak oil is either with us now or will be soon. Will this undermine aerotropolis development?
Aviation doomsayers typically assume technology is constant but it is not. There will likely be major advances in aviation technology over the next 30 years that will make aircraft far more fuel efficient and likely even less dependent on fossil fuels than today. This includes, among others, more fuel-efficient, quieter engines, use of biofuels, a next generation of air traffic control systems and lighter aircraft made of composites.
Many don’t realize how rapidly aviation technology advances. For example, it was 1903 when the Wright Brothers made the first very short flight. By 1969, Concorde supersonic aircraft and Boeing 747 jumbo jets were flying — and we put a man on the moon. It is because of the rapid advances in aviation technology and likely future innovations in jet fuels that I am optimistic that the aviation industry will adapt and prosper even after peak oil is reached. People seem to have a much greater penchant for predicting crises than in predicting innovations. They can foresee disaster but not the innovations that will prevent the disaster.
What about the challenges of carbon emissions, greenhouse gases and climate change?
Contrary to conventional wisdom, aircraft contribute relatively little to carbon footprints and greenhouse gases — only about 2%. Aircraft manufacturers and airlines are committed to not having carbon emissions increase in the decades ahead, despite at least a three-fold increase forecasted for air travel.
We need to separate the myths from reality. The reality is that aviation’s role in carbon emissions is quite small compared to industrial and urban development and even to animal-related greenhouse gases which account for nearly 18% of the total. Most Indonesians believe aviation’s impact is far larger than 2%. Environmental costs of aviation need to be addressed with proper perspective, particularly in light of the benefits aviation brings to the people, communities, and nations they serve.
Dr. John D. Kasarda is director of the Kenan Institute of Private Enterprise at the University of North Carolina in the USA. He advises airports, multinational firms, and governments on transportation and commercial infrastructure for business competitiveness and economic growth. The leading developer of the aerotropolis model, Dr. Kasarda’s latest book, Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next, was published in 2011.