As Hurricane Florence approached the Carolinas last month, Charlotte appeared to be in its crosshairs, after whatever devastation it might cause along the coast. In the end, the storm did devastate the coast and beyond but caused surprisingly little disruption at American’s Charlotte hub. And in airline terms, anyway, that was very good news. Because in terms of passenger volumes transiting an airport, it’s difficult to think of a hub closure more disruptive to the broader air transport system than a hub closure in Charlotte.
Think of a big American metropolis, and it won’t be Charlotte that comes to mind. It doesn’t even crack the top 20 U.S. metro areas by population— St. Louis has more people. But Charlotte’s airport? It’s an aviation powerhouse.
Just 2.5m people live in North Carolina’s largest metro. But the city’s airport welcomed 46m passengers last year, making it the 10th busiest nationwide. Just as impressively, it’s the 32nd busiest worldwide, similar in traffic volumes to London Gatwick, Shenzhen, Mexico City and Toronto.
Why does Charlotte punch so far above its weight aeronautically?
First, it’s important to note that looking only at the population within what’s defined as a metro area can be misleading, because what’s most relevant is the number of people—hopefully people with some spending power too—who are within reach of an airport, even if some of these people live in what are defined as other metro areas. Look at how many people live within 100 miles of Charlotte’s airport—in other words, within roughly a two-hour drive—and Charlotte (with 7.9m people by that definition, according to a Diio Mi analysis of census data) isn’t so much smaller than, say, Dallas-Fort Worth (8.5m) or even Atlanta (8.7m).
And speaking of Atlanta, just like Charlotte’s neighbor a few hours’ drive southwest, Charlotte sits north of highly -visited Florida, making it an ideal connecting point for sunshine-seeking travelers in the northeast, Midwest, Canada and even Europe. For this same reason, Charlotte—like Atlanta—works well as a Caribbean gateway. Charlotte is Atlanta-like in its ability to attract traffic from scores of cities and towns throughout the American South, many with limited air service and growing economies. Some, like Greenville-Spartanburg just…
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