Washington, D.C. – Air transportation will be a key ingredient in metropolitan Washington’s economy in the coming decades despite a decline last year in passenger traffic nationally, according to a panel of experts who spoke today at a COG forum on aviation and the region's economy. In recent years, the economic impact of airports has been a key focus of COG's Aviation Policy Committee, which is chaired by Arlington County Board Member Mary Hynes.
The panelists focused on the significant increase in the number of international passengers using Dulles International Airport, the direct economic benefits of all the region’s airports and their links to the key national hubs such as New York, Chicago and Atlanta, along with the prediction that the nation’s economy is expected to show moderate but steady growth in the coming years.
James Bennett, president and chief executive officer of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA), said that although passenger capacity – defined as the opportunity to sell airline seats – declined at Reagan National Airport and Dulles International last year, the number of seats that were actually sold was much higher than it was 10 years ago.
“The economic downturn has probably hit the bottom for the aviation industry, but I don’t think the airlines will add that capacity back soon,” he said. “We’ll see gradual, incremental growth.” A total of 6.3 million international passengers used Dulles airport last year – 26 percent of all its passengers – making it the best year for international traffic in the airport’s history, Bennett added.
Emphasizing the importance of international passengers, Leo Schefer, executive director of the Washington Airports Task Force said that nearly 20 percent of adults in the region visit Europe once every three years and 12 percent of the region’s jobs are related to international trade.
Schefer and Carmine Gallo, the Federal Aviation Administration’s Eastern Region Administrator, also emphasized the importance of transportation modes to quickly get passengers to and from the airports – such as the plan for building a Metrorail line to Dulles. They said an airport’s benefit doesn’t extend to the entire region without sufficient ground access.
Currently, the direct economic impacts of the region’s three major airports include 28,000 jobs related to the airports, a payroll of $1.3 billion from jobs at the airports, regional business activity of $6.5 billion, state and local taxes of $326 million and federal taxes of $500 million, Bennett said.
Dr. Stephen Fuller, Director of the Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University, concluded the forum with a presentation on the importance of airports to the future of the region’s economy. Citing development around water ports, rail lines, and highways, Fuller noted that economic growth driven by transportation hubs, such as airports, is nothing new. However, increased competition is making such hubs more important than ever. The future of metropolitan areas is tied to the type of air service they can provide, which helps determine which industries they attract.
Fuller predicted that the federal government will remain a powerful job generator and continue to attract companies to the region, even if they choose to maintain headquarters elsewhere. “Our airports will make it possible for them to do that,” said Fuller.
Citing his forecasts that 1.7 million new residents and 1.6 million new jobs will come to the region by 2030, Fuller called for a regionally-focused development plan, with development around airports being crucial. Fuller closed with a call for regional leaders not to “undervalue” airport areas by failing to maximize economic development potential.