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.

Author's Note: How Airports Work

I'm definitely one of those people who flies less now than before Sept. 11. And not because I'm afraid of terrorists flying the plane into a building (although that would suck). For me, dealing with airport security and the frequent delays, especially after you've already boarded, makes a long drive seem like a rational alternative.

Related Articles


  • Airlines for America. "Chapter 8: Airports." Airline Handbook. (Sept. 8, 2013)
  • "Airport Security." FlightGlobal. (Sept. 8, 2013)
  • "Aviation Security." Department of Homeland Security. (Sept. 8, 2013)
  • Baskas, Harriet. "How the airport experience has changed since 9/11." USA Today. Sept. 7, 2011. (Sept. 8, 2013)
  • Bennett, David. "Runway Length Requirements for Airport Design." Federal Aviation Administration. July 1, 2005. (Sept. 8, 2013)
  • Bowen, John and Jean-Paul Rodrigue. "Airport Terminals." The Geography of Transport Systems. 2013. (Sept. 8, 2013)
  • Brehm, Denise. "New model of disease contagion ranks U.S. airports in terms of their spreading influence." MIT News. July 23, 2012. (Sept. 8, 2013)
  • Clark, Jayne. "A day in the life of an airport screener." USA Today. Sept. 8, 2006. (Sept. 8, 2013)
  • Conrad, Linda. "Airport Design." Virtual Skies. April 2010. (Sept. 8, 2013)
  • Denver International Airport. "Do you know DIA?" (Sept. 27, 2013)
  • Denver International Airport, Media Relations. "Press Kit." July 2013. (Sept. 8, 2013)
  • Elliott, Christopher. "Airport Security 2.0." National Geographic Magazine. (Sept. 8, 2013)
  • Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. "ATL Airport Fact Sheet." May 2012. (Sept. 8, 2013)
  • "How Does Baggage Handling Work?" (Sept. 8, 2013)
  • Jules. "A Day In The Life Of An Airport." Pure Travel. June 20, 2013. (Sept. 8, 2013)
  • Landrum & Brown "Runway Length Requirements Analysis: Dayton International Airport, Master Plan Update." Feb. 9, 2005. (Sept. 8, 2013)
  • McCartney, Scott. "Where a Cop's Beat Includes a Tarmac." The Wall Street Journal. April 8, 2010. (Sept. 8, 2013)
  • Osborne, Charlie. "10 challenges for your airline and airport in 2013." The Bulletin Blog. Jan. 3, 2013. (Sept. 8, 2013)
  • Park, Kyunghee and Andrea Rothman. "Boeing's 747-400, a Faded Queen of the Skies." Bloomberg Businessweek. Jun. 21, 2012. (Sept. 25, 2013)
  • Rosenblum, Andrew. "How It Works: Airport Fire Truck." Popular Science. (Sept. 8, 2013)
  • Transportation Security Administration (TSA). "Advanced Imaging Technology: Traveler's Guide." July 23, 2013. (Sept. 27, 2013)
  • "World-wide Civil Jet Fuel Grades." Shell Global. (Sept. 8, 2013)