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Point, Hub, Link, Node: The Unique Geography of Airports & Pearson

When we go to the airport, do we really ever consider where we’re going? To most of us, even those who love transportation geography, an airport is a dot on a map. However, Toronto Pearson International Airport, with its cargo and customs facilities, is over 15 km sq. of movement, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, employing approximately 40,000 people. To put that in perspective: It is bigger than the town in which I currently reside, with moving parts well after the evening, when my quiet burg has gone to bed. It is a first-rate “hub airport,” serving one of the largest metropolitan regions in North America. Yet we too often think of it as “to” or “from,” and ignore the power of its locale. Pearson is not just a spot on a map. It is one of the single largest generators of economic potency in the GTA.


Two decades ago, while trying to sound important for a paper I was writing, I came across this significant factor: specialization and efficiency in entrepôts (French for port of entry) could become a viable reason for using a port as an alternative to another nearby port. Conversely, poor turnaround times and a lack of specialized cargo capacity is a net disincentive to use a port. Toronto, by virtue of its 5+ Million metro area residents, is a massive market. It is a healthy, growing area with many opportunities for economic success. It is, without question, a world class city. So, what of its largest airport?

You might imagine that every year, billions of dollars of cargo pass through Pearson’s terminals and gates. By 2050, over $50 billion of cargo alone will pass through Toronto. Some of it is for the local market, but Toronto is also a pass-through hub for fruits, vegetables and other domestic comestibles? A pineapple from Jamaica, for example, might wind up in Korea (via Pearson). Gary Ogden, Vice President at GTA World Cargo, told me about the importance of quality and speed in an air cargo operation. He said, “Do you realize that we can use Fly Jamaica to take fruit to Japan simply because we can turn it around in 120 minutes or less?” I was shocked. I realized that at some point, there’s economic and geographic advantage that is created by simple efficiency.

According to Darryl Horzelenberg, The Manager of Route Development at Aviation Services for the Greater Toronto Airport Authority, this impact is 5.6% of Ontario’s entire economy, with 448,000 tonnes of cargo in 2014, 76 per cent as international freight. In addition, 45 per cent of the connections made are international, from as close to the US to as far as Tokyo. Toronto’s Hub Economic study on Pearson Airport’s impact is here. Think about it this way: there are literally thousands of connections to and from Canada every day, resulting in a $12.7 Billion dollar economic impact, and over $2.8 Billion dollars in tax revenue. Why can an airport deliver so much as a hub? I think it’s time we re-envisioned the term “hub” in GIS.

To many GISers, a hub is a point on a map, occasionally with larger-than-usual symbology attached to it. Sometimes, we see lines as a means of flow or throughput, but rarely do we reflect on the sheer power of these points. Whether they are hubs, intersections, airports, seaports or any other point, an intersection is a reflection not just of a geographic singular entity. It is a reflection of purpose: Roads and rails, rivers and ports, all places which we create as a meeting point, carry an importance. Classically, paths met rivers, and these rivers carried people and goods to new places. From seaports, to rail depots, and eventually airports, these places of conjunction are losing their importance beyond convenience in the public eye.

I think the study of the hub, particularly from a geomatics perspective, should become a new point of emphasis. I am not disrespecting other forms of geomatic research. However, hubs or centroids or places of agglomeration have not been as popular in study. Perhaps it’s bias from this transport geographer, 20 years in to his career, but it seems that we’ve gotten caught up in the coolness of our product (and GIS is very cool). Or we’ve gotten to visualizations and again, there is a great deal of awesome creativity with maps that might even reflect the various strengths of hubs. We’ve seen data visualizations of port or internet activity. We see the round numbers of those great engines of activity, but rarely do we appreciate the decisions that go into creating those hubs.

Pearson is actively trying to create its own market as an international goods hub by means of incredible efficiency. While this might seem to be a goal for any major city airport, Canada presents unique challenges not found in some markets, including America. For example, while Canadian customs are similar, and both nations enjoy NAFTA status, there’s certain regulatory and taxation requirements that are vastly different. While most American airports are supported by federal, state, and local taxes, Canadian airports often are required to give a portion of their gate or cargo receipts back to their local agency, and where near an alternative US airport, some traffic can be driven away due to this relatively large expense. Gary Ogden noted that as cost is not a place Pearson can compete, there had to be other market advantages other than pure size. Those advantages lay in wisely choosing market strategy and efficiency.

Pearson’s cargo market, as we’ve noted, is highly competitive due to its incredible turnaround times. To borrow from Michael Porter, it is a positive linkage, bringing goods from the Atlantic to the Pacific market with a great deal of speed. With food products, time is of the essence. An entire cargo plane can be turned around in 180 minutes, presuming all paperwork is in order. These full cargo shipments can then head out of the airport, bound for Asian markets or other areas with little access to fruit. While perhaps not the cheapest method, the destination is not necessarily worried about price, but rather quality and availability. In market determination, Pearson positions itself as the quality and speed airport.

While this often comes at a price, ask yourself this: if the demand of high quality perishables is pricey, what is the cost of wasted food? Both Gary and Darryl know the value of efficiency and speed as it relates to not wasting perishables, as well as making the customer happy at the end of the shipment.

Pearson is a unique study in geomatics: not only is it a point on a map, a hub for transshipment and a massive operation in and of itself, it is part and parcel of economic geography and geomatics. Darryl, Gary and their colleagues and staff study not just the economic impact, but every portion of operations in cargo from the minute it takes flight on a path to Pearson, to the minute it lands, turning it around, inspecting and getting it out to the appropriate flight. This incredible feat of geomatics happens every day, a thousand times over. This creates markets across Canada and the world, while also bringing thousands of jobs, prosperity and a massive economic engine to the Greater Toronto Area.

Airports are not just a point on a map. We must go back to understanding why intersection in transportation exists. Why did we put ourselves and goods on boats? To get places more quickly and with more things. Why do we now put our cargo and ourselves on planes? Why do we choose to fly out of Pearson? Or fly goods into it? We in geomatics ought to be asking questions of our airports: Are they aiming to be economic engines, or are they simply taking what comes at them, in accordance with their market size?

Geomatics is the study of the dynamics of place. Airports are places connecting places to dynamically create not just a transportation hub, but a part of the economy, and the livelihood of millions.


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