Thursday, November 8th, 2012

Global Connectivity and International Air Passengers

The Brookings Institution recently released a very interesting study looking at international air travel in the top 100 metros. They did this not only by looking at flights and such – the traditional way a lot of cities think about their access to international markets – but in terms of origin and destination traffic. That is, the people flying to or from a given metro from a foreign country, even if it was on a flight that connected in another city. Connecting (or as they put it, “gateway”) traffic, was also examined.

Unsurprisingly, New York City is overwhelmingly dominant, with 31.7 million passengers. Miami, with its status as a huge North American hub for Latin America, was #2. Here’s the top ten for total O&D passengers:

Row Geography 2011
1 New York-Northern New Jersey-Long Island, NY-NJ-PA 31,740,007
2 Miami-Fort Lauderdale-Pompano Beach, FL 15,019,583
3 Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana, CA 14,959,390
4 San Francisco-Oakland-Fremont, CA 8,623,258
5 Chicago-Joliet-Naperville, IL-IN-WI 7,138,074
6 Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV 5,830,893
7 Orlando-Kissimmee-Sanford, FL 5,440,701
8 Boston-Cambridge-Quincy, MA-NH 5,338,728
9 Las Vegas-Paradise, NV 4,555,564
10 Honolulu, HI 4,125,734

This is interesting, but the list is somewhat expected as a total passengers metric is correlated with population. Another measure that might be interesting as well is international passengers per capita. This gives a sense of which metros are really globally connected from a flight interchange point of view, relative to their size. Who really punches above their weight? Since Brookings didn’t post this, I’ll make it my contribution. First a map of the metros Brookings included in their study:

International air passengers (O&D) per capita (2011). Source: Brookings Institution Analysis of BTS data. Image via Telestrian

The top 25 list is below. Here we see, again perhaps unsurprisingly, that major international tourist destinations like Honolulu, Orlando, and Las Vegas do well. Miami retains its #2 rank. New York falls to #6. In general, however, America’s largest tier one cities, the ones that we generally perceive as more globally connected, still score fairly high.

Row Geography 2011
1 Honolulu, HI 4.28
2 Miami-Fort Lauderdale-Pompano Beach, FL 2.65
3 Orlando-Kissimmee-Sanford, FL 2.51
4 Las Vegas-Paradise, NV 2.31
5 San Francisco-Oakland-Fremont, CA 1.96
6 New York-Northern New Jersey-Long Island, NY-NJ-PA 1.67
7 Boston-Cambridge-Quincy, MA-NH 1.16
8 Los Angeles-Long Beach-Santa Ana, CA 1.16
9 Washington-Arlington-Alexandria, DC-VA-MD-WV 1.02
10 Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue, WA 0.79
11 Denver-Aurora-Broomfield, CO 0.75
12 Chicago-Joliet-Naperville, IL-IN-WI 0.75
13 Raleigh-Cary, NC 0.69
14 Houston-Sugar Land-Baytown, TX 0.67
15 Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Marietta, GA 0.62
16 Charlotte-Gastonia-Rock Hill, NC-SC 0.59
17 Minneapolis-St. Paul-Bloomington, MN-WI 0.54
18 Detroit-Warren-Livonia, MI 0.46
19 Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater, FL 0.45
20 San Diego-Carlsbad-San Marcos, CA 0.43
21 Portland-Vancouver-Hillsboro, OR-WA 0.42
22 Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington, TX 0.42
23 Phoenix-Mesa-Glendale, AZ 0.41
24 Philadelphia-Camden-Wilmington, PA-NJ-DE-MD 0.35
25 Baltimore-Towson, MD 0.34

Topics: Transportation

20 Responses to “Global Connectivity and International Air Passengers”

  1. REALTOWN says:

    Alas, sometimes geography hurts. I wonder where on the list Philadelphia would place if it wasn’t so close to the NY/DC airports?

  2. Scott says:

    Looks like Indianapolis fares better than most of its midwest peers. How much of that do you think is the Indy 500 and Moto GP (which bring in a lot of international visitors)?

  3. REALTOWN, yes. For cities where a major international airport in an adjacent metro – say Milwaukee or Providence – I believe the reported international traffic is less because people will drive to an O’Hare or Boston then fly non-stop, rather than fly from their home airport and connect. This affects the numbers.

    Scott, I believe Indy has a fairly large catchment area for its airport vs. say Cincinnati. This probably makes a difference.

    Both of these are speculations I should add.

  4. Mihir says:

    As an aviation planner, this list is fascinating.

    I see it breaking down in this manner:

    1-4: Outliers – these metros have a very unique, specific reason for their disproportionate numbers. Honolulu is geographically isolated in the middle of the Pacific so obviously it is going to naturally attract international traffic, particularly with tourism. Miami is unique because it has long been considered THE gateway to Latin America and the Caribbean, both in terms of immigrants and businesses. Orlando and Vegas are gigantic global tourism magnets unmatched by anyone else, at least in the U.S. What to watch in the future: can Orlando and Vegas diversify their international reach beyond tourism – i.e., can their local economies generate a different type of international traveller (i.e., more business-oriented)?

    5-10: Coastal Global Gateways: These are mainly large, traditional immigrant and/or global business cities on the oceanfront rim of the country. DC is probably the only city in this cluster where the immigrant population is relatively recent, but this is offset by obvious high international traffic demand generated by being the global center of power. What to watch in the future: Can DC grow into a truer international gateway beyond the core diplomatic and defense folks? Dulles still feels like a weak global gateway outside flights to major European capitals, a few Gulf states, and a few niche flights (e.g., immigrant-oriented flights to Korea and El Salvador). In many ways it is still a relatively parochial U.S.-oriented market, certainly compared to large wealthy coastal peers like NYC and the Bay Area.

    11-12, 14-17: Mid-Continent Global Hubs: These are large, “flyover country” megahubs that have grown into larger international portals despite (with the exception of Chicago) a relative lack of long immigrant history. These cities tend to have major Fortune 500 companies that have a a high need for global connectivity, whether 3M in Minneapolis, Exxon-Mobil in Houston, or Bank of America in Charlotte. What to watch in the future: Charlotte – probably the fastest-growing large airport in the nation, but with local economic challenges concerning over-dependence on finance/banking, and a relatively small metro population that means a US Airways hub still flying lots of nearly-obsolete gas-guzzling regional jets. However, they have snatched Chiquita’s HQ from Cincinnati, with global flight connectivity being a factor (Latin America and Caribbean growth has been huge there – there is now a non-stop flight to Rio). They are growing so fast that they need a fourth parallel runway now, just a couple years after opening their third.

    18-25: Rustbelt and Sunbelt: These are either cities that once had great industrial bases and attendant immigrant populations (Detroit, Philly, Baltimore), but are probably generating some international traffic from sheer size and legacy today, or newer sprawling Sunbelt cities (San Diego, Phoenix, Tampa) that have not (yet) developed large global business/immigrant bases commensurate with their size. What to watch in the future: Dallas came in surprisingly low for such a large, up-and-coming, fast-growing metro. It would seem they are still a U.S.-oriented hub banking on their good location for East-West connectivity. It is unclear whether enough immigrants can develop more demand (e.g., there is a large enough Korean community that they now have Korean Air flights), or its businesses and corporations can grow more global reach. I think it is hampered by the fact that Houston just to the south is a far more compelling international gateway and hub, due to both a very global-oriented energy industry cluster, and a much larger and more diverse immigrant base (you can easily see why there is demand to places like Lahore, Lagos, and Saigon from Houston).

    The Big Surprise Overall: #13 Raleigh. While I knew of Raleigh’s disproportionately large international orientation (e.g., a daily flight to London subsidized largely by Glaxo and its pharma workers, lots of corporate connections to Ottawa/Toronto due to the technology industry, and all this despite losing American Airlines’ hub years ago), it was surprising to see them ranked higher than Houston and Atlanta. What does this mean? A fairly small college town/state capital combo can succeed and grow into an international city if it has a high value-added economic base to go with it. It is what separates Raleigh from Columbia, SC, Baton Rouge, LA, or even Sacramento, CA (three very light-blue metros on the map – as a Columbia resident I can see the difference – there are not enough foreign professors or researchers to offset the huge dearth of globally-oriented businesses). Raleigh is even head and shoulders above more prominent college towns like Madison, WI or Columbus, OH. Raleigh is probably the smallest metro with prominent and growing Asian business areas (e.g., East Chatham Street in Cary has many Indian businesses, and developers are trying to re-purpose an old outlet mall near the airport into a new Chinatown).

  5. Tim says:

    I’m surprised to see Denver Colorado so far up the list. For domestic flights I would understand, but for an airport so “dead center” it has a surprising number of international flights. I wonder if the new airport made an impact over the old airport.

  6. Wad says:

    Miami would also be dominant because it is one of the busiest cruise port terminals in the world.

  7. Chris Barnett says:

    Detroit and Cleveland get an “international” boost by being their manufacturing regions’ gateways to eatern Canada. (The Detroit Three have long had operations in the Great Lakes region of Canada. One steelmaking/smokestack center is in Hamilton, just south of the Toronto airport.) While it is an international border, it’s a shorter flight to Toronto from most Lower Midwest airports than to NYC, Gulf Coast, or West Coast.

    Ohio’s population is not even twice Indiana’s, but it has three metros Indy’s size or larger, each with a big airport. Plus Dayton. I’d agree with Aaron: intuitively, this limits the geographic and population catchment areas of those airports compared to Indy. Granted, significant portions of Indiana’s “metropolitan” population are counted in other states’ metros (Louisville, Cincinnati, and Chicago), but the population/area served by Indianapolis International is still huge.

    Indiana has a large concentration of Japanese-owned auto-parts and auto-assembly operations within 60-70 minutes of Indianapolis, as well as HQ’s of domestic manufacturing corporations with international ownership, operations and connections (Lilly, Cummins, Dow Agro, Rolls-Royce, Roche, Allison). All that’s a signficant international business traffic driver.

  8. urbanleftbehind says:


    I’m not sure but the old airport was a land-locked poorly designed shorter runway airport not unlike Chicago Midway not capbale of landing large aircraft. Denver has a brisk Mexico and Canada business. Denver has a large catchment area which can flex as far east as Nebraska, as far west as SLC, as far south as Albequerque and as far north as Montana depending on the flight vector. Also, one wonders if many travelers fly to Denver for either flight connections or ground transport to ski resorts.

  9. Tim, the list has nothing to do with how many international _flights_ a city has. It’s about how many people in that market are flying internationally out of airports in the metro.

    Don’t forget, a lot of international traffic in some cities is leisure travel to places like Mexico and the Caribbean.

  10. david vartanoff says:

    a bit confused by the groupings: SFO, OAK Fremont??? Are the San Jose users included? Fremont has a huge South Asian component for whom San Jose is closer. and from my perspective BWI is DC’s third airport particularly since shuttles to Bethesda where I have kin make it “closer” than National.

  11. David, I believe it is based on passengers flying out of airports (not where passengers live) and the locations where airports are. The Bay Area is split into two metros: San Francisco-Oakland-Freemont and San Jose. Every passenger coming out of SFO and OAK counts in San Francisco. The ones out of SJC into San Jose. People from Freemont who drive to fly out of SJC would be counted as passengers from the San Jose metro.

    This means that the “capita” value I used – the metro area population – isn’t necessarily based on the the same catchment area of the airport. Given the nature of air travel, there will always be quirks like this.

  12. Mihir says:


    I wonder if you’ve thought about how this list may fit with your “Diversity-Tradeability Matrix”:

    Except for the Honolulu/Orlando/Las Vegas Outliers, this might be:

    5-10: Mature Global Cities and Elite Industry Clusters

    11-12, 14-17: Large, Mature Regional Business Centers and Mid-Tier Industry Clusters

    18-25: Emerging Regional Business Centers and Large Legacy Rustbelt Cities

    Raleigh: A unique niche: an Elite Industry Cluster in Small Emerging Business Center clothing. One of the few metros in the country that has a golden combination of high-growth, high-skill, and Sunbelt-style sprawl and low costs. I like to think of it as the Sunbelt version of Boston.

  13. Chris Barnett says:

    As I think about it, MSP is the international air gateway to the Mayo Clinic.

    Denver (Vail, etc.) and Salt Lake (the only “dark blue” metro not in the top 25) are international ski destinations and probably more tourist than business-based. Also, Salt Lake would be the departure point for Utah Mormon mission trips, and that would be a statistical outlier since in other places typically only well-off 18-24 year olds travel internationally.

    Miami and Orlando also benefit from British and Canadian snowbirds. It would be interesting to tease out how much of Miami’s flow is tourism vs. Latin American-North American business beachhead.

    Finally, it would be interesting to understand whether and how military charters for deploying and returning soldiers and Marines might impact this. Raleigh is the closest major airport to both Ft. Bragg and Camp Lejeune; because of that it may also attract international defense-contractor travelers.

  14. Mihir says:

    Chris –

    I’m not sure how much foreign travel Ft. Bragg and Camp Lejeune would generated, for the following reasons:

    (1) Generally the defense contractor business is domestic-oriented, mainly for obvious national security reasons.

    (2) Those that happen to have an international component are probably going to be headed to/from Washington or a military installation with some specialized function (e.g., BAE Systems has some operation on or near Base X; I can see this happening somewhere like the Army Signals Intelligence unit at Fort Gordon near Augusta, GA, but then again, note that on the map, metro Augusta has some of the lowest levels of international travel).

    (3) Military charters may not be captured by the Brookings methodology. I’m guessing they’re using commercial airline bookings as their base data, but I haven’t verified that.

    (4) Military charters often land at the military base itself, if there is a sufficiently long runway. In SE North Carolina, they can land at Seymour Johnson AFB, rather than Raleigh-Durham, for example.

    (5) I’m not aware of a specific reason why Ft. Bragg or Camp Lejeune would generate international travel. Are there lots of overseas charters or a foreign defense contractor located there?

  15. Mihir says:

    The Brookings site has an excellent, very detailed interactive portion to this study that shows specific regions and actual destination cities for each metro:

    So, for example, it’s not surprising to see Tel Aviv and Santo Domingo in the top 10 for New York, Dubai and Calgary for Houston, and Munich for Greenville-Spartanburg (home to the North American HQ for BMW).

  16. Andrew Karas says:


    Fascinating breakdown! I’m just curious–is there a way to get this kind of stuff through a Brookings research feed, like RSS or Twitter or something?

  17. Brookings has a web site. You can get a lot of information there. The city data comes from their Metropolitan Policy Program.

  18. Chris Barnett says:

    Mihir, Lejeune and Bragg are points of overseas deployment for Marines and Army Airborne, respectively. The services often use charters, hence the charter question. When individual servicemembers or small groups return home on leave or reassignment, it is typically on civilian aircraft. Contractors based domestically on or near those bases would fly to overseas destinations serving “their” units from the nearest commercial airport.

    Many US economic stats for the last decade have been highly influenced by US military activity. For instance, population and income growth have been higher than average around big bases. It only follows that international air travel would show some effects also.

  19. Mihir says:


    Thanks very much for the clarification. Do the military charters you note definitely use RDU or do the use a long-runway facility (either military like Seymour Johnson AFB or civilian like the Kinsport Global TransPark) closer to the bases? That still leaves the question if they’re captured by Brookings. For example, the South Carolina National Guard has used widebody civilian charter aircraft at Columbia (SC) Metrolpolitan Airport during overseas deployments – but they use the general aviation terminal and facilities, not the commercial airline terminal that the public would be more familiar with.

    I think you’re probably right about certain “military metros” generating international traffic commensurate with their local economies’ war-related growth over the past 10 years. Kileen-Ft. Hood, TX would be a similar example. As many of these metros are smaller than the “top 100” followed by Brookings, it’s hard to track in this study. It’s further complicated by the fact that these international passengers may be using an airport in a nearby but separate metro (e.g. Ft. Bragg troops being deployed are counted in RDU’s numbers rather than metro Fayetteville’s). It’s a quirk of the Census Bureau’s and Brookings’ methodologies, as Aaron mentioned.

  20. Andrew Karas says:


    Gotcha, thanks. Certainly a good site to check on from time to time.

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