As airports have grown to accommodate our reliance on air transport as a major part of our modern society, they have changed to become suitable for local, regional, national, and international needs.
Airports are created in a range of sizes and functions, depending on the intended purpose of the airport and the local needs the airport is designed to fulfill. The airport’s size is determined by the air traffic demand and the type of aircraft that will be landing and taking off from the location.
Most people are unaware that airports are categorized according to their type and function, and it is interesting to discover the distinctions between the airport types and their roles in air transport.
Types of Airports
Although airports have different functions, they all have similar layouts and requirements to handle the air traffic and the people and cargo transported by airplanes and other aircraft.
All airports have a landing area consisting of runways designated for aircraft take-offs and landings, taxi ways to direct aircraft on the ground, and parking areas for aircraft.
Some airports have hangers to park aircraft for overnight stays or temporary storage while the aircraft is not in use.
Besides the runways, airports have various structures to manage the flow of people, cargo, and border control, if the airport is international.
Depending on the airport’s size, there will be facilities for security and emergency personnel and equipment.
Even though airports will all have similar facilities, the designs and layout of the airport will differ depending on the airport’s intended purpose.
Airports are divided into strict areas of accessibility, with the public side known as the land side, where there are fewer restrictions and movement control. The air side of the airport is the business side of the airport, where aircraft are managed, loaded, offloaded, and directed. This area is subject to strict laws and regulations to ensure public and aircraft safety.
1. Primary Commercial Service Airport
Primary commercial service airports are the largest type of airport and have a multi-functional role in our cities and regions.
These are large-scale airports designed to handle large volumes of people and cargo transport. Many of these airports are also international airports, controlling the movement of people and cargo across international borders.
The volume of people these airports process and transport require a substantial infrastructure to cater to the number of people passing through the doors. The land side of these airports is like a shopping mall, with shops selling goods to travelers, food courts for passengers to eat, and relaxation areas for those waiting for flights.
These airports usually have separate areas for local and international passengers. The international arrival and departure areas will have passport and customs control to monitor people entering and leaving the country.
Primary commercial service airports have large cargo handling structures and processes, including customs import and export control. The cargo handling area of the airport is generally separate from the passenger handling sections.
These large airports have the strictest control and security measures since they are often targets of terrorist attacks, smuggling, and other illegal activities. Heathrow airport, JFK, and LAX are examples of primary commercial service airports.
For an airport to be classified as a primary commercial service airport, it must process in excess of 10 000 passengers annually.
2. Non-Primary Commercial Service Airports
Non-primary commercial service airports are also referred to as non-hub non-primary airports. These are smaller airports that receive a scheduled passenger and cargo service and process between 2,500 and 10,000 paying passengers annually.
In lower air-traffic regions, these airports can serve as international airports if they are close to borders between countries or the local demand for air traffic only requires a smaller airport.
Non-primary commercial service airports can have a cargo processing operation, but it will be on a much smaller scale than a primary commercial service airport.
The security controls and restrictions at these airports are generally not as strict as at larger airports, and the size of the airport will restrict the size and number of aircraft it can handle.
3. Reliever Airports
Reliever airports are usually smaller airports geographically close to primary commercial service airports.
Reliever airports are facilities designated by the FAA to relieve congestion at commercial service airports and to improve general aviation access to the local general public.
In practice, most reliever airports function to relieve congestion for cargo service airports, but their definition does not limit them to receiving cargo only.
If the infrastructure at the reliever airport has the necessary facilities, passenger aircraft can be diverted to these locations in certain circumstances. If flights are larger airports are limited due to congestion, inclement weather, or security issues, both cargo and passenger flights can be diverted to reliever airports.
Reliever airports do not cater to international passenger travel but rather shorter local and regional flight traffic.
Reliever airports are not always government-controlled and may be owned by the government, individuals, or corporate entities.
4. Cargo Service Airports
There can be some crossover in the definition and classification of airports since some primary service commercial airports can also be designated as cargo service airports if they handle sufficient freight.
However, in many cases, cargo service airports are dedicated to handling cargo or freight rather than passenger transport. Cargo service airports can be regional, interstate, and international, depending on the airport’s location.
For an airport to be designated as a cargo service airport, it must handle a minimum of 100 million pounds of landed weight cargo each year. Landed weight is defined as the weight of an aircraft and its cargo and does not include passenger travel.
5. General Aviation Airports
General aviation airports is a broad term that covers a wide range of small airports that are too low in air traffic to be classified in any other category.
A general aviation airport can be a cargo-only airport, a passenger airport only, or a mixture of the two services.
The official definition of a general aviation airport is a public-use airport that has no scheduled service or offers scheduled service with less than 2,500 passenger boardings per year.
These airports are found in locations with lower population density, where the demand for air travel and cargo volumes are much lower than in areas with high population densities. The lower traffic volume requires a smaller airport with fewer public facilities and shorter runways catering to smaller aircraft.
The category of general aviation airport is very generic, which has required some sub-categories to better describe the function of some of these smaller airports, which include the following.
6. National Airports
A national airport is a sub-category of general aviation airports and is described as an airport that falls within the less than 2500 passengers annually but services flights nationwide. National airports would typically have slightly larger and longer runways catering to larger aircraft.
National general aviation airports contribute to the greater national airport network by connecting localities to national and international markets. National airports are hubs of aviation activity, catering to jet-engine, multi-engine propeller, and single-engine aircraft.
National airports are usually large enough to cater to national and international travel if the area and local population size do not warrant a commercial service airport.
7. Regional Airports
Regional airports are a sub-category of general aviation airports but are smaller than national airports. They can, however, be busy airports, serving relatively large population groups.
Regional airports typically cater to flights of shorter durations since they generally service a smaller geographical location. Regional airports are typically used for intrastate and interstate travel but can transfer goods and passengers to larger centers and airports where international travel and transport are possible.
By connecting towns to regional and national markets, regional airports often help to boost local area economies. They are typically found in urban regions and serve relatively big populations. Regional airports typically have the facilities to support jet and multi-engine propeller planes.
Regional airports are usually located in metropolitan areas with an urban population of at least 50,000 or between 10,000 to 50,000. These population statistics are often used to classify the airport as regional.
8. Local Airports
Local airports are typically smaller-scale airports that only offer air transport within their local state. These smaller airports can also reduce the traffic in regional and national airports and generally offer more convenient intra-state travel with less red tape and security measures.
Many states in the US are large, making these small airports a necessity to service the vast expanse of the state.
Local airports offer local communities access to markets within a state or the immediate region. Local airports are usually located in larger populated areas but are not necessarily centers classified as metropolitan.
Most local airports only cater to piston propeller-driven aircraft, which are used to support business and public travel for the local community. These airports have limited support for cargo, and any freight brought in and out of the airport uses similar-sized aircraft as the passenger planes.
Local airports often feature flight training schools, emergency flight rescue services, and charter passenger services.
9. Basic Airports
Basic airports are another sub-category of general aviation airports but have limited services and infrastructure. The runways do not typically support jet-powered aircraft.
Basic airports connect communities to regional or national airport systems and provide services for general aviation needs such as emergency response and rescue, air ambulance services, flight schools, and flying personal aircraft.
The majority of flying at local airports is self-piloted aircraft for business and pleasure, usually using light propeller-driven aircraft.
Local airports typically have a single runway and may include a helipad but have minimal infrastructure, security, and services.
10. Unclassified Airports
The unclassified airport is a catch-all category for airports that do not fit into any of the other airport classes. Airports that typically fall into this category are small local landing strips used by remote rural populations.
Unclassified airports can be a strip of level land that the community has smoothed out to provide a simple landing strip for small aircraft. The traffic at these airports is typically infrequent and often only on request when goods, services, or transport of people are required.
The aircraft are usually summoned via radio from larger basic or local airports as and when a flight service is needed.
These airports are usually very informal, with no air traffic control and little to no ground infrastructure to support cargo, passengers, or aircraft. Typically only planes capable of handling rough landing and take-off conditions are suitable for servicing these airports.
11. Seaplane Base Airports
Certain geographical regions of the world do not have terrain suitable for constructing traditional land-based airports. Large bodies of water are the only accessible locations for air transport in these locations.
Seaplane bases are airports that cater to seaplanes and other aircraft modified to undertake water landings and take-offs.
The stretch of water used for aircraft traffic must be monitored and controlled to prevent watercraft and the general public from entering the flight path of the seaplanes.
These airports can range in size from very small, servicing a small local population, to relatively large and servicing small towns.
The security around the air traffic side of the airport is typically the same as that of land-based airports, the only difference being the planes land on water rather than concrete or tarmac runways.
12. Heliport Airport
A heliport airport is an airport that exclusively caters to helicopter traffic and does not have the space or infrastructure to support fixed-wing aircraft traffic.
These airports are typically small and are used to service islands with insufficient space to build a runway to accommodate fixed-wing aircraft.
Heliports generally support both passenger flights and cargo flights and may include medical and rescue flights supporting the surrounding area. Heliports are frequently used for tourism, taking tourists on scenic flights in the region.
Airports provide an invaluable service for large and small communities worldwide. The size and complexity of the airport and its services are largely driven by the size of the population and industry in the region.
Whatever the size of the airport, we rely on the safe and accessible travel and cargo delivery that airports bring to our cities and local communities.