Friday, September 11, 2009

The Meaning of Core City

I read a study the other day that cited an analysis of airports and their core cities. I emailed the author to ask how Raleigh came to be singled out as the core city for Raleigh-Durham International Airport?

As I suspected, the analysis had fallen into the common trap of assuming each airport is primarily associated with one city. It has been many decades since that assumption had any universal validity but it’s amazing to see how many airports, airlines, car rental companies and consultants are still stuck back in that paradigm.

For decades now, many airports have served polycentric areas without a dominant center. RDU is one of them. Centric areas by definition are “centered” around one large dominant city, so it’s not just by size but by geography.

It makes a practical difference to distinguish between centric and polycentric areas. A visitor, traveler, meeting planner, newcomer or relocating executive destined for an area centered around one dominant city can guess where to stay or live and either be close to where they need to be or equidistant from several options.

A visitor to a polycentric area needs more information, or as in RDU’s case, risks staying or commuting 60-70 miles round trip from the destination. Believe me, travelers and newcomers inconvenienced by centric thinking quickly light up organizations like DCVB with complaints because they believe the destination marketing organization should have had control over the misinformation.

In the case of RDU, it has a catchment area of several dozen different cities, towns and counties. It is located equidistant between two metro areas, the four county area centered around Durham NC and the three county area designated as Raleigh-Cary. RDU isn’t located in a major city, it is located in a small town midway between and co-owned by two medium sized cities, Durham and Raleigh and their respective counties, Durham and Wake.

In addition to RDU, there are other airports serving polycentric areas, DFW, SEATAC, GSO, MSP and many others.

So the old, outmoded models stuck in the premise that all areas served by an airport can be truncated to name of one city have got to go. The world is much more complex and has been for some time.

This means airlines need to list cities and towns served instead of using the heading for what is really a list of airports. Such a change should be very simple in the Internet era. Additionally, when airlines say they’ve added a new destination but they actually mean a new airport, it is best to use the name of the airport rather than arbitrarily singling out one destination it serves.

Similarly, when advertising routes or fares, it is better to use the names of the two airports, e.g. RDU to DFW than to arbitrarily single out Raleigh to Dallas and disregard that the majority of ,passengers may be actually be using the airports to travel from Durham to Fort Worth.

Airports also need to give communication style manuals to new carriers, especially in polycentric areas, explaining the layout of the area and nomenclature that will not only be accurate but best for business. Snubbing 90% of the travelers in a polycentric area by truncating it to the name of only one city isn’t smart business.

Or we can just keep inconveniencing people, disrespecting owner communities and rolling those eyes. Which will it be?

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