Greenfield airports as an urban expansion strategy: What drives success?

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Max Hirsh, research professor at the University of Hong Kong and author of the popular blog, looks at the five critical drivers that fundamentally determine the success or failure of greenfield airport projects.

Around the world, an exciting new generation of greenfield airport projects are currently in the pipeline. Beijing is building a second international hub at Daxing, planned by NACO and designed by ADPI in collaboration with Zaha Hadid. On the shores of the Black Sea in Turkey, Istanbul is constructing a third airport, Istanbul New Airport, and in Sydney, Australia, plans are afoot to design a new hub from scratch on the city’s western outskirts.

All of these projects are being built with two goals in mind. They aim to increase capacity in dynamic aviation markets where passenger and cargo volumes are set to grow for the foreseeable future. These greenfield projects are also a strategy for large-scale urban development on the ground.

Beijing, Istanbul, and Sydney have all experienced rapid population growth over the last few decades and building major infrastructure projects, like a greenfield airport, is one way to expand these cities’ footprint to relieve pressure on the historical city center.

From the perspective of local and national governments, these airport projects are about increasing aerial connectivity, as well as creating jobs and educational opportunities in the underdeveloped urban region.

With thoughtful planning, these two goals can be complementary. Cities like Beijing, Istanbul and Sydney also risk making mistakes early on in the design process that can lead to enormous social, financial, and environmental costs further down the line.

At best, the greenfield projects will generate vibrant new airport hubs and will bring jobs and services to peripheral parts of the urban region. However, they risk becoming isolated on the urban fringe, unpopular among airlines and customers, and eating up vast sums of public and private money, Tokyo Narita in Japan and Montréal Mirabel in Canada serving as negative examples.

Planning a successful greenfield airport, that effectively manages air traffic and stimulates urban development, requires a deep understanding of both the global aviation industry and the local urban context.

The success of these projects boils down to a discrete set of issues. Below are five critical drivers that fundamentally determine the success or failure of a greenfield airport:


Given the scale of development, greenfield projects tend to cut across various geographic and administrative boundaries, and the more involved they are, the harder it becomes to implement a coherent long-term growth strategy for the airport and the surrounding communities.

It is crucial to establish a supra-jurisdictional governing body for the airport area. If not, future planning strategies will become bogged down by local politics and individual interests.

Successful airports like Amsterdam Airport Schiphol in the Netherlands have developed coordinating bodies that moderate a productive dialogue between public- and private-sector stakeholders. Dedicated airport-area institutions enable airports to identify synergistic development strategies, and to avoid protracted lawsuits and institutional paralysis.


Existing airports in the same catchment area will inevitably have an advantage. Older airports are often located much closer to major population centers, and will therefore be more popular among passengers and businesses. And unless there are serious problems at the old airport, airlines will prefer to stay where they are.

Financially, private investors tend to favor established airports with a proven track record of operational transparency and reliable returns on investment. Greenfield airports must encourage passengers, airlines and businesses to relocate to a much more distant location, and demonstrate viability to skeptical investors

Greenfield hubs need to consider a range of financial, practical, and qualitative incentives that will draw customers to a distant and untested site.


Greenfield airports tend to be built far from the central business district. That distance gives operators a lot of flexibility but it also makes it difficult to attract customers. The most successful greenfield airports tackle this challenge by planning ground access options that vary by price and speed. In so doing, greenfield airports can appeal to both busy professionals and to commuters and leisure customers. When one system fails, travelers can quickly turn to alternatives.

Leading greenfield airport projects incorporate a wide range of ground access options: expressway, high-speed rail, metro, ferry, and helicopter.

A clear brand identity

Aviation markets often develop into multiple-airport regions (MARs) where two or more airports serve the same catchment area. MARs work best when each airport has a clear understanding of its purpose in relation to other airports in the region, and is able to communicate that purpose with a clear brand identity.

As urban planning expert Robert Freestone pointed out in a recent article, current greenfield projects in Sydney (and in Beijing) have yet to communicate a clear identity to the flying public. Establishing that identity early on in the planning process is crucial for the successful launch of these projects, and to ensure their long-term viability.

Integrate the airport into the city

In order to design successful large-scale urban developments that are based on accurate demand forecasts, it’s important to be aware of the social, cultural, economic and environmental dynamics of the surrounding urban region. For example, ecological issues like water management and urban food security are important to consider.

Sydney’s environment commissioner, Roderick Simpson, pointed out in a recent talk, there are questions that any serious airport-area developers need to be asking themselves. Successful greenfield projects need to be attractive not only to passengers and airlines, but also to local businesses and residents.

Planning for Success

It is crucial to consider these five drivers of success before a plan has been drafted, and before a tender has been issued. Discussing these issues is also the first step toward articulating a vision of what the new airport aims to achieve, and for communicating that vision to investors and the public.

A new airport needs to communicate a vision that will convince passengers, airlines, business owners and local residents to come to the edge of the city.

Because communicating that vision, and identifying the steps needed, is the biggest challenge for greenfield airport projects all over the world.


Max Hirsh (PhD, Harvard) is a professor at the University of Hong Kong and a leading expert on airports and urban infrastructure. He is the author of Airport Urbanism: an unprecedented study that incorporates the perspective of passengers, planners, developers, and aviation executives. Hirsh also writes the popular blog, where he presents leading-edge strategies for tackling many of the issues that confront airports today.

June 15, 2017

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