If you’ve flown in the past ten years, at least part of your journey likely involved one of the approximately 3,000 large airports that provide scheduled commercial service, such as Beijing Capital International, Chicago O’Hare, London Heathrow, or Amsterdam Schiphol. Beyond these major hubs, about 36,000 regional airports, suitable for smaller aircraft, provide coverage for less traveled routes. Lacking the facilities and landing strips required for large aircraft, regional airports are typically underused, even during busy travel times. They nevertheless serve as essential links in the transportation chain and often provide other services—from flight training to recreational flying and aerial firefighting to skydiving.
Although regional airports now serve relatively few passengers, a recent NASA report suggests that their importance could increase as technology advances make flights in smaller aircraft greener and more affordable1. If progress continues as expected, more passengers might opt for air transport for mid-distance journeys of 50 to 500 miles. Underused regional airports are the logical base for such trips because they are often more accessible than commercial airports. In the United States, for example, 90 percent of the population lives within a 30-minute drive of a regional airport, with only 60 percent in the same proximity to a commercial airport (exhibit). In Europe, 50 percent of people live within a 30-minute drive of a regional airport, compared with only 41 percent for commercial airports.
Some changes must occur before regional airports can serve as travel hubs for mid-distance trips. First, we need aircraft that travel more quietly and with lower emissions to build broader public acceptance. Innovative conventional takeoff-and-landing aircraft (CTOLs), now under development, could help in this respect because they rely on novel propulsion systems—battery electric, hybrid electric, and hydrogen-fuel-cell electric. Another innovation under development—electric vertical-takeoff-and-landing vehicles (eVTOLs)—could also serve as a relatively quiet and green mode of transport.
To accommodate novel CTOLs and eVTOLs, regional airports would need new charging systems, such as stations that enable hydrogen refueling, extremely fast high-power charging, or rapid battery swapping. Building such infrastructure is always expensive, but upgrading regional airports, which already have many essential facilities and services, is less costly than new construction.
These improvements to regional airports could see a solid return on investment if passenger demand materializes. What’s more, the new aircraft under development could be less expensive than today’s small aircraft, allowing regional airports to scale up their mid-distance flights fairly quickly. In the best-case scenario, regional airports could eventually serve large numbers of people who want more efficient transport options while simultaneously decreasing emissions and road congestion. It’s a win for everyone.
1. Regional Air Mobility, NASA, April 2021, sacd.larc.nasa.gov.
Leonardo Banchik is a consultant in McKinsey’s San Francisco office, where Robin Riedel is a partner; Benedikt Kloss is an associate partner in the Frankfurt office.
The authors wish to thank Brian Cooperman, Guenter Fuchs, and Andres Ramirez Gutierrez for their contributions to this article.