The Storm Heard Round the World: How Sandy Slammed Global Aviation

In an era of interconnectivity, Sandy is part of a new breed: The Global Storm

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Reuters

Hurricane Sandy has already set the new high-water mark in New York City by an additional three feet, flooding the subways and leaving hundreds of thousands without power. Other major coastal centers from Boston to Washington have also felt Sandy's brute force. The storm's impact stretched across the Northeast, shutting down schools all the way to Shaker Heights, Ohio.

But the Northeast is more than just a major concentration of the nation's population and economy. It is also the country's logistical hub. And that causes the devastation here in the Eastern Time Zone to ripple across the world in every conceivable direction.

In this modern era of global interconnectivity, Sandy is part of a new breed: the global storm.

Sandy's meteorological power may derive from unique low pressure systems, but its reach depends on the physical connectivity that defines our metropolitan era. Today, metropolitan economies no longer eat only what their local farmers grow, or trade just with their immediate neighbors.

Instead, we rely on a complex web of global links that bring tropical fruit to our groceries in the dead of winter and allow business meetings to take place an ocean away.

SANDY'S GLOBAL REACH

Global aviation helps make those relationships possible. In the United States alone, the number of international aviation passengers doubled over the past two decades, exceeding 163 million passengers in 2011. This growth rate lapped the change in domestic aviation, and also far exceeded real domestic economic growth. Tapping into international markets brings new economic opportunities back home.

But all of this international activity does not exist in a locational vacuum. Based on recent Brookings research, the 100 largest metropolitan areas responsible for 96 percent of all U.S. international passengers.

And this is where we return to Sandy and the Northeast. Because the aviation network is based around a hub-and-spoke network, the Northeast plays an outsized role in international connectivity. New York, Philadelphia and Washington don't just produce large numbers of their own passengers; they also serve as connection points for over 20 percent of all international passengers that cannot fly directly. If Sandy shuts down travel in Chicago, another 10 percent of connecting passengers would face extended delays.

Losing access to these gateways spreads delays like a virus, moving from a single region in the United States to every corner of the globe.

The medicine for this sickness is not simple. The United States already boasts one of the most mature aviation networks in the world, and there's certainly no way to stop hurricanes from forming. But we can use Sandy as a wake-up call to better recognize the role of gateways in our aviation system.

As it stands, federal policy tilts too heavily towards a system of geographic equity. There is no doubt this improves access to rural communities, but it comes at a real consequence to the vast majority of travelers. We need a recalibrated system, one that emphasizes economic efficiency for all metropolitan markets. This means federal capital investments should level the playing-field for major airports. It also means they should free those same airports to raise more of their own revenue, accelerating the construction of the airports of tomorrow.

We also need to continue prioritizing our transformative navigation system, known as NextGen. Analyses, such as General Accountability Office's, have done a great job cataloging the causes of implementation delays. With Sandy's aviation effects fresh in the minds of federal leaders, now is the time to take their findings and accelerate deployment of the new satellite-based system. And the first order of business should be to implement programs, like MetroPlex, that focus on our global gateways.

Sandy now joins the ranks of predecessors like the 2009 Icelandic volcano--global storms that wreaked havoc across all time zones. The question is, when the next storm rolls around, will we be better off than we are today?

Presented by

Adie Tomer is a senior research associate at the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program.  He is the co-author of Global Gateways: International Aviation in Metropolitan America. You can follow him on Twitter @adietomer. More

Adie Tomer is a senior research associate at the Brookings Institution Metropolitan Policy Program.  He is the co-author of Global Gateways: International Aviation in Metropolitan America. You can follow him on Twitter @adietomer

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