Considering the delays and mishaps in super-projects (e.g. the new airport in Berlin), wouldn't it be rational to standardize airports in the same ways aircraft are: Building them all according to the same designs and not in a "one-off" fashion? Why is this not done?

  • $\begingroup$ airport layouts are influenced by the runway locations $\endgroup$ Aug 23 '15 at 19:55
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    $\begingroup$ Why aren't all hospitals built to the same design? Why not city hall? How about national parliament/capitol buildings? I don't think even the Soviet Union standardised public landmark building designs. $\endgroup$ Aug 23 '15 at 20:07
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    $\begingroup$ Many airports are built on old airfields, before people even had such ideas. Wind, runway layout, local terrain, existing roads.... $\endgroup$
    – Simon
    Aug 23 '15 at 20:08
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    $\begingroup$ Those who voted to close as too broad, how could this question be made more specific? $\endgroup$
    – egid
    Aug 24 '15 at 3:06
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    $\begingroup$ I'm not sure why this is considered too broad. There are already two excellent answers which suggests to me they did not think it was too hard to answer. $\endgroup$
    – Ben
    Aug 24 '15 at 5:20

1. Terrain and land use

Several new airports are build on landfill island or coast next to mountains, their shape is influenced by the terrain and their size.

Hong Kong International Airport runways and shape are influenced by the terrain. Its curved east bank looks like the Chek Lap Kok island, which the airport is built on there. Both HKIA runways are parallel to the hill of Lantau island, south of the airport island.

HKIA is on the north of Lantau island (largest green shape), the grey colour stands for reclamation land and the green colour is the originally Chek Lap Kok island. Map of Lantau island showing reclaimed land

2. Prevailing wind

Prevailing winds influence the runway heading. Since takeoffs and landings are usually done as close to headwind as possible, wind direction generally determines the active runway. If the prevailing wind is uncertain, multiple runways with different directions will be built, Boston Logan airport is a extreme example. Aerial view of Boston Logan airport

3. Terminal building and bargaining power of airport management

This factor largely influences the terminal layout. In USA the airport management is largely influenced by the airlines, sometimes the terminal buildings are managed by airlines themselves, like New York JFK. The airlines prefer the terminal building which can minimize the taxiing time, passengers transfer time and maximize the perimeter (and hence the number of gates), Atlanta Hartsfield airport is one good example. Its linear shape can minimize the taxiing time and increase the number of gates available.

Map of terminals at Atlanta Hartsfield

On the other hand, for main airports outside USA and Europe, the airport owner has strong marginal power of the airport management. They will choose the terminal building which can best fit for their strategy. Some airports owned by the government prefer a massive size of airport as an image of the country/cities; and some airports prefer large commons which can maximize the shopping experience (and hence rental income). Pictured below is Beijing Capital International Airport. Nighttime aerial view of Beijing Capital International Airport

4. Historical factor

Several airports were built before World War II and some even existed before World War I. At that time the airport was just a new concept. A full development and operation methodology for airport had not been developed. Many full airport layouts, which nowadays seem to be "inefficient", were developed. And since the layout with the buildings were built, it is costly and time-consuming for reconstruction, especially at the busiest airports. Airport managers tends to expand the existing building with new gates and other facilities, rather than total reconstruction. Pictured below is a master plan for O'Hare International Airport from 1948. Master plan for O'Hare International Airport from 1948

Heathrow airport is reconstructing Terminals 1-3, replaced by linear buildings like Terminal 5. It will take 5 years to destroy the old Terminal 2 and phase one was just completed last year. Terminal 3 will be rebuilt after 2019 and the whole project will take more than a decade. Illustrated aerial view showing Heathrow expansion plans

5. Airport operation

Operations of the airport are influencing the airport layout. For airports have more flights for both general aviation and airlines, they tend to have more runways, like Dallas DFW and Amsterdam Schiphol. On the other hand, in most parts of the world there are only 1 or 2 runways even for the most busiest airports where most of the flights are from airliners, like Dubai and Hong Kong, ranking for 6th and 10th busiest airport in terms of total passengers. Aerial view of Dubai International Airport

6. Reversal: Experience

On the other hand, huge number of airports has been built in the half century, several airport design has been well developed. We can see the latest airport may share similar terminal shape, runway plan and airport layout.

Hong Kong international airport and Hamad International airport enter image description here

Chongqing airport (Far future) and New Lisbon airport proposal enter image description here


To sum up, there is not one optimal conclusion of airport layout. The airports are built related to physical limitation, historical constraints, stakeholders opinions, and, of course, the architects' designs. No airport will be identical, regardless the layout, terminal shape and style. On the other hand, the experience from airport planner will create a similar airport.

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    $\begingroup$ This is a good answer! I would note, though, on the last point that very busy airports with only a few runways are usually due more to space constraints than to the presence of GA traffic. For example, DFW (that you mentioned) actually has only 1% GA traffic. It's almost exclusively airliners (99%, according to the FAA A/FD.) Dubai is building a new airport that is planned to have 5 parallel runways. Their current location just doesn't have room to build more. $\endgroup$
    – reirab
    Aug 23 '15 at 22:47
  • $\begingroup$ Another reasons for airports to need more runways, of course, is number of movements (i.e. takeoffs and landings.) Going back to the DFW vs. DXB example, while DXB had 10% more passengers than DFW in 2014, DFW had 90% more movements than DXB in that same time period (due to most of the movements being domestic operations on regional jets, 737s, MD-90s, A320s, etc. rather than long-haul operations on 777s and A380s like at DXB.) $\endgroup$
    – reirab
    Aug 24 '15 at 6:03
  • $\begingroup$ @ reirab but even 3-4 runways are sufficient for the most busiest airport $\endgroup$
    – Him
    Aug 24 '15 at 8:56
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    $\begingroup$ It's sufficient for most, but not really for O'Hare or Atlanta. Both of those airports had about 2.5x as many movements as DXB last year. Even with 5 runways, Atlanta can get backed up pretty quickly. $\endgroup$
    – reirab
    Aug 24 '15 at 13:19
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    $\begingroup$ Please provide attribution for all of your images. $\endgroup$
    – CGCampbell
    Oct 5 '15 at 23:36

You can standardize a procedure to determine the optimal airport, but this wont produce a constant shaped airport. The biggest factors in airport construction are the runways. Runways are influenced by

  • prevailing winds
  • anticipated operations (volume and type)
  • surrounding terrain

If there is only one dominant prevailing wind direction you can get away with runways in one direction. If you have a significant secondary prevailing direction, you'll need a crosswind runway. If you want to handle lots of operations, you need multiple runways in the same direction. To maximize operations you want them to be widely spaced apart. If you want to handle large airplanes you need longer runways.

All of those factors (and more) will determine an optimal runway layout, but practical considerations (mostly finite available space) will turn the optimal layout into something else.

This procedure means a one-airport-fits-all solution isn't very realistic. This also only applies to new construction (see: KDEN). Many airport construction projects are also limited by the existing airport they are expanding and the development around them.


It's not that airports are not standardized -- in the US, FAR part 139 describes the standards that your typical significant airport must meet. It's that they must be tailored to fit the local conditions:

  • usage mix (business GA, flight training, cropdusters, heavy jets, military fighters, aircraft factories, and more)
  • topography (runways have the most stringent standards on topography of any transportation facility found on land, even more stringent than rail lines, and also can't bend around corners)
  • wind direction (especially important if you are in an area with variable weather and/or handling small planes with poor crosswind capability)
  • weather of other sorts (do you need extra long runways due to "hot and high" problems such as Mexico City? Do you need to be able to keep runways clear of extreme snow and ice fall?)
  • operational capacity (multiple primary and even multiple parallel crosswind runways, accompanied by complex taxiway networks, are needed at large airports in order to keep them from becoming total bottlenecks, see SAN or LHR for what happens when you can't put more runways in)
  • obstacle clearance (instrument approaches need significant swathes of clear airspace in straight lines unless you are willing to limit your customers to Part 121, 135, 91K, and business 91 operators with very recent avionics capable of flying Radius-to-Fix (RF) legs, and these requirements become more and more stringent as the weather gets worse. Phoenix can get away with having obstacle issues because the weather doesn't exactly turn rotten there very often, but say Chicago O'Hare, Heathrow, or St. John's needs to be able to get planes in even in truly terrible conditions of thick fog, swirling snow, and driving rain)
  • and landside connectivity (major passenger facilities will need gobs of parking and major highway connections, as well as hooks into public transit, while a cargo hub or aircraft factory will need the ability to handle heavy trucks or even shipments by freight rail, and there's also the need for fuel...)

As a result, the standards in part 139 and the various documents that implement it must be quite flexible to adapt to the varying needs of the NAS' airports.


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