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Kristina Tipton

Director, Market Research at Near

4 mins read

When do people choose a bigger airport vs. a closer airport? What human movement data reveals for one major city

Air travel in the U.S. has some of its busiest days between Thanksgiving and Christmas travel. With a mess of crowds and flight cancellations over peak travel days this summer, the stakes are high for airports and airlines to know what travel patterns to expect and prepare for them. An important question to answer is which airports travelers choose based on their point of origin and final destination. It’s a question that can be a real challenge to answer that traditional data sources generally don’t provide guidance on. Human movement data can provide the key to connecting the dots. To show how it works, we looked at one of the busiest airports in the world.

Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) is the primary airport serving the Los Angeles area.

In 2021, LAX served more than 48 million passengers, making it the fifth busiest airport in the world. But also serving the populous Los Angeles and Orange County metro areas are 3 more international airports: 

Hollywood Burbank International Airport (BUR) - 30 miles drive from LAX
John Wayne International Airport in Santa Ana (SNA) - 40 miles drive from LAX
Ontario International Airport in Ontario (ONT) - 60 miles drive from LAX
According to 2021 TSA data, LAX serves about 75% of the total passengers coming through the LA Area – with the other 3 airports comprising the other 25%.
 

Near looked at human movement data for LA area residents during another peak travel time, July 4th weekend. We looked to understand how they traveled, including: 

Where people live in relation to the airports they choose to fly out of?

When are ‘local’ markets large enough that it makes sense to offer flights from them?

We defined the potential local market for each airport as a 25 mile radius around the airport (the mean distance of the average person in the U.S. to their nearest airport is 25.7 miles).  Here’s what we found:

Closer airports saw very high overlap with LAX

Hollywood Burbank Airport (BUR), just 30 miles from LAX, has the most significant overlap with the LAX catchment area. In fact, 83% of travelers living within 25 miles of BUR chose to fly out of LAX instead. This is not surprising as LAX offered 8 times the number of flights as BUR in July 2022 (46.6K vs 5.8K), and the 25 mile radius for BUR has high overlap with the area around LAX in some of the most densely populated areas of L.A.

John Wayne Airport (SNA) is slightly farther, around 40 miles from LAX, and has less overlap. Just 40% of the travelers living within 25 miles of SNA chose to fly out of LAX. 

Meanwhile, Ontario International Airport (ONT) is farthest away at 60 miles from LAX, a drive that can take hours in LA traffic. This is reflected in just 19% of travelers living within 25 miles of Ontario choosing to fly out of LAX.

The overlap between these markets is also visible in the trade area maps for each. ONT (green) has the most distinct trade area, while SNA (blue) starts to overlap especially in the northern part of its trade area.  BUR (yellow) has the most significant overlap.

Trade Areas of airports in the Los Angeles and Orange County areas

The median distance traveled to LAX was between 10 and 25 miles, which again underscores why Ontario and John Wayne Airports have less overlap than Burbank. Very few LAX travelers within driving distance (6%) travel between 50 and 100 miles to get there.

Distance Visitors Traveled to LAX

 Adapting to changing traveler behavior

Human movement data can help answer specific questions around air travel to better understand traveler behavior and inform strategy. By answering questions around traveler origin and final destination and understanding their preferences, airports and airlines can:

 

  • Inform and optimize routes
  • Target marketing efforts more efficiently
  • Determine staffing and alleviate TSA bottlenecks
  • And more

In a time when traveler behavior is shifting quickly, the real-time insight that human movement data provides is invaluable. 

Methodology

Near studied human movement data around travel behavior in the Los Angeles area and specifically at airports LAX, BUR, ONT, and SNA for July 3-4, 2022. Reports used include Pin Report, CEL (Common Evening Location) Reports, Dwell Time reports, and Pathing X Reports with Context. 

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