Travel Trends

International Air Travel Doubled in Last Twenty Years

International air travel in and out of the United States has more than doubled over the last two decades, exceeding the growth rate of domestic aviation and also significantly outpacing real GDP growth, according to a report released today by the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program.

Airline News Resource However, while the airports in the largest 100 metro areas handle 96 percent of all international passengers, they receive only 36 percent of federal funds for infrastructure maintenance and improvements. 

Global Gateways: International Aviation in Metropolitan America” is the first study of its kind to track the flow of passengers between U.S. metro areas and points abroad.   The report ranks 1) the 100 largest metro areas for the number of passengers traveling to and from international destinations through their airports; 2) the most popular international metro areas based on passengers traveling to and from the United States; and 3) the most trafficked corridors between U.S. and international metro areas.

“Expanding and improving the nation’s aviation connections across the world has real economic benefits for local economies, helping U.S. metro areas tap into trade opportunities beyond national borders,” stated Adie Tomer, senior research associate and associate fellow.  “But little is known about the actual movement of people between U.S. airports and those around the world. By learning more about these flows, policymakers can better understand how to take advantage of aviation-driven growth in the global marketplace.”  

Past research on traffic flows has been limited to the metropolitan areas with direct international connections, such as New York and Los Angeles. The Brookings report uses actual origin- destination data to offer a more complete picture of international air travel from all 100 of the largest U.S. metros, including smaller aviation markets such as New Orleans and Wichita.

Between 1990 and 2011, international passengers have increased by 117% (compared to a 53% increase in the number of domestic passengers), according to the report.  Nearly all U.S.-based international passengers start or end their journeys in the airports of the nation’s 100 largest metro areas. The nation's largest metropolitan area, New York, led this group with 21.6 percent of all international passengers in 2011. Another 10 percent of all international travelers either start or end their journey in Miami or Los Angeles. San Francisco, Chicago, and Washington, D.C. also move at least 3.5 percent of international traffic.  Among the fastest growing aviation centers are those in Las Vegas, NV, Charlotte, NC, and Orlando, FL. 

A specific group of 17 gateway metros handle a majority of all international connecting passengers. Since most metros have few international connections, these gateways share a dual responsibility of their own travel plus access to and from the United States’ other population centers.

“Currently, operational breakdowns in just one of the major gateways can have serious consequences, at any given moment, for travelers across the country or even around the world,” stated Rob Puentes, senior fellow and director of the Metropolitan Infrastructure Initiative.  “As global competition grows, federal officials need to recognize the primacy of certain metropolitan areas and prioritize aviation investments in those places for the benefit of travelers everywhere.” 

International growth patterns reflect the role of emerging regions in the global economy. Metros in the Middle East and North Africa, Asia-Pacific, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Latin America experienced the fastest growth. For example, Sao Paulo, Shanghai, and Istanbul each more than doubled their passenger travel between the United States during the eight-year period.

While the emerging economies experienced the fastest growth, travel was still highest to developed economies and close neighbors. London is the most popular foreign destination.  The U.K. capital moves over 9.2 million passengers, equal to 6.1 percent of all international passengers.  Eight of the 25-most trafficked international metro areas are in Canada and Mexico, with four metros apiece. 

As economic growth continues to stretch across all corners of the globe, modern and efficient facilities will be vital to helping U.S. economies tap into those economic opportunities, according to the report. However, federal investment policies do not prioritize these metro areas

for their outsized share of international traffic and their significant contribution to GDP.  Instead, capital programs favor smaller airports at the expense of larger ones by inefficiently focusing more on geographic equity for distribution of funds. 

“The growth in international air passenger levels shows how much U.S. metropolitan economies interact with their international peers, reinforcing vital business and tourism relationships.

Taking advantage of these global economic opportunities will require targeted airport and navigational investments at the federal and local level,” said Tomer.

View the report and related materials here:


The Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings provides decision-makers with cutting-edge research and policy ideas for improving the health and prosperity of metropolitan areas, including their component cities, suburbs, and rural areas. To learn more, please visit:

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