Beginners’ Guide to Public-Use Airport Classification

One of the best college courses I have ever taken is Airport Management. It is truly fascinating to learn about the breakdown of just how exactly airports are classified, owned, funded, and managed. Pilots would not fly without airports, and airports would not be necessary without pilots, so I believe that any good pilot should have a working knowledge of the different types of airports and how they are categorized.

I could make a whole series of articles just based on who owns what type of airport, the types of regulations they have to follow, and the different ways airports are managed. However, today I would simply like to introduce the rules behind how airports are generally classified in the US.

The FAA has been recognizing public-use airports that are eligible for federal funding since 1970. They created the National Airport Systems Plan (NASP) which included approximately 3,200 such airports that were shown to be serving public needs. In 1982, with the passage of the Airport and Airway Act, the FAA was asked to prepare a new version of the NASP, to be called the National Plan of Integrated Airport Systems (NPIAS). This updated version included a total of 3,411 airports in 2008.

With the new NPIAS system came a new way of classifying airports for federal funding. Here are the basic parts and a quick definition for each.

1. Primary Airports

These are categorized in the NPIAS as those public-use airports enplaning at least 10,000 passengers annually. This accounts for less than 3 percent of the nation’s total airports, with only 383 airports falling into this category in 2008.

2. Commercial Service Airports

This is any airport that accommodates scheduled air carrier service by a certified airline. Of the 770 million passengers that flew domestically or internationally in the United States in 2009, practically all of them went by way of a commercial service airport. The FAA recognized 522 of these such airports in 2008.

3. General Aviation Airports

Airports with fewer than 2,500 annual enplaned passengers are covered by this classification, as well as airports that are used exclusively by private business aircraft not providing commercial passenger air carrier service. This category gets a little more tricky, as there are over 13,000 airports that technically fit the description. However, not all of these are included in the NPIAS. There is usually at least one GA airport in the NPIAS per county, and any airport with more than 10 aircraft based there and more than 20 miles away from the next nearest NPIAS is also included. In 2008, a total of 2,564 airports held this classification in the NPIAS.

4. Reliever Airports

Perhaps the most unique of the classifications, relieved airports are specifically designated as "general aviation airports that provide relief to congested major airports." In order to qualify as a reliever airport, the airport must have at least 100 airplanes based at the field or handle 25,000 itinerate operations.

Primary Airports also have a special subsection to include the different sizes of primary airport operations. It is important to note that the NPIAS definition of a hub is different than that in the airline industry, and they are simply referring to the number of annual enplaned passengers that use the airport. These are as follows:

1. Large hubs

These airports account for at least 1 percent of the total annual passenger enplanements. Of the 30 large hub airports that were classified in 2008, they handled 70 percent of all passenger enplanements in the US.

2. Medium hubs

These airports handle between .25 and 1 percent of the annual enplanements. There were 37 airports that held this designation in 2008.

3. Small hubs

These airports handle between 0.05 and 0.25 percent of annual passenger enplanements. The NPIAS reported 72 of these in 2008.

4. Nonhubs

These airports handle more than 10,000 annual enplanements, but less than 0.05 of the annual total enplanements.

I hope that I have helped to break down a little more just how airports are classified by the FAA. I would recommend looking up your favorite airports to see what type of hub they fall under, and if they are considered primary or just commercial service.