How Airports Work

Airport Management

Not surprisingly, airports are huge businesses. How big? Well, Denver's airport cost about $5 billion to build, and operating costs are $160 million per year. But its economic impact on the state is huge. According to the Colorado Department of Transportation, Denver International Airport generates $22.3 billion for the state every year [source: Denver International Airport].

Commercial airports are publicly owned and generally financed through municipal bonds. Airports typically own all of their facilities and make money by leasing them to airlines, air-freight companies, and retail shops and services, as well as by charging for services like fuel and parking and through fees and taxes on airline tickets. The revenues pay off the municipal debt and cover the operating costs. Airports often require other sources of funding as well, such as airport bonds and government grants. But most airports are self-sustaining businesses once they become operational.

About 90 percent of employees at airports work for private companies, such as airlines, contractors and concessions [source: Airlines for America]. Most of the remaining 10 percent work directly for the airport as administrators, terminal- and grounds-maintenance personnel and safety crews. Air traffic controllers are employees of the federal government. Airports have their own departments of finance, personnel, administration and public relations, much like any city or municipality.

Whether or not you find heaven or hell in the complex world of a commercial airport largely depends on your personality and the circumstances of your travel. A business person trying to make an early-morning meeting tomorrow will likely curse the airport today if her flight is delayed or she has to make a mad dash across two miles of terminal to catch a connecting flight. Someone taking a month-long vacation to Hawaii may be much more forgiving about these realities of flying and may even see the airport as a great place to observe people and study human nature. Either way, airports will continue to be all-important nodes in the international transportation system -- at least until someone perfects teleportation.

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