Kristin Murphy, Deseret News
Salt Lake International Airport in Salt Lake City on Friday, Mar. 2, 2012.
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. —Adie Tomer, study co-author and senior research associate

SALT LAKE CITY — Utah's largest city has been making significant progress regarding the amount of international air travel it has facilitated over the past few years.

That increase could mean even more economic growth if it continues, according to a new study by a Washington think tank.

"Global Gateways: International Aviation in Metropolitan America," released Wednesday by the Brookings Institution's Metropolitan Policy Program, showed that international air travel in and out of the United States has more than doubled over the past two decades, exceeding the growth rate of domestic aviation and also significantly outpacing real gross domestic product growth.

The report is the first study of its kind to track the flow of passengers between U.S. metro areas and points abroad. The study ranked the 100 largest metro areas for the number of passengers traveling to and from international destinations through their airports. It also evaluated the most popular international metro areas based on passengers traveling to and from the U.S., as well as the most trafficked corridors between U.S. and international metro areas.

Since 2003, Salt Lake City saw its volume of international passengers jump 32.1 percent, while its ranking for passenger travel climbed from No. 30 to No. 27.

"We saw large increases into places like the Middle East and North Africa, and developing Asia and Pacific countries in particular," said Rob Puentes, co-author of the study and director of the Metropolitan Infrastructure Initiative. "These are the emerging economies where we'll see growth in the future … and it matters to the metropolitan economy of Salt Lake City."

Puentes suggested that local civic leaders take a hard look at the potential advantages that improving air travel infrastructure could bring to the state and continue to make financial investments in that sector.

"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," said Adie Tomer, study co-author and senior research associate. "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 100 of the largest U.S. metros, including smaller aviation markets such as New Orleans, Wichita and Salt Lake City.

Between 1990 and 2011, international passengers increased by 117 percent compared with a 53 percent growth in the number of domestic passengers, the report stated.

Nearly all U.S.-based international passengers start or end their journeys in the airports of the nation's 100 largest metro areas, led by New York 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 also move at least 3.5 percent of international traffic. Among the fastest growing aviation centers are Las Vegas; Charlotte, N.C.; and Orlando, Fla.

"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," Puentes said. "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."

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, Tomer said.

"Taking advantage of these global economic opportunities will require targeted airport and navigational investments at the federal and local level," he added.


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