In this post, I am referring to those rivers that have commercial airport runways running through, across, adjacent or within them. In a surprising number of locations in the United States and Canada, cities have utilized the riverine floodplain for siting both commercial and general aviation airports. As will be discussed, a riverine environment has some positive attributes, while also carrying a number of potential pitfalls.
First, below is a list of commercial (or former commercial) airports that were built in a riverine environment in the United States and Canada. It does not include those on bays, lakes, oceans, or other large water bodies other than rivers. It also does not include those near a river or which are elevated on a bluff, hill, or mesa. The Missouri and Mississippi Rivers each have multiple examples – Missouri with four and Mississippi with two. This could be due to the width (or breadth) of the river valley/floodplain for these two enormous rivers.
Along the river bank/shoreline
- Washington, DC – Reagan National Airport (Potomac River)
- New York City, NY – La Guardia Airport (East River)
- Philadelphia, PA – International Airport (Delaware River)
- Phoenix, AZ – Sky Harbor International Airport (Salt River – dry)
- Portland, OR – International Airport (Columbia River)
- Harrisburg, PA – International Airport (Susquehanna River)
- Cincinnati, OH – Municipal/Lunken Field (Little Miami River)
- Kansas City, MO – Downtown (Wheeler) Airport (Missouri River)
- St. Paul, MN – Downtown Airport (Mississippi River)
- Sioux City, IA – Sioux Gateway Airport (Missouri River)
- Iowa City, IA – Municipal Airport (Iowa River)
On islands in the river (see photo of La Crosse Airport above)
- Little Rock, AR – Clinton National (partially occupies an island in the Arkansas River)
- La Crosse, WI – Municipal Airport (on French Island in the Mississippi River)
- Knoxville, TN – Downtown Island Airport (on Downtown Island in the Tennessee River)
On a river delta island (see photo above)
- Vancouver, BC – International Airport (Fraser River)
On a river oxbow (see photo of Eppley Airport above)
- Omaha, NE – Eppley Airfield (Missouri River)
- St. Joseph, MO – Rosecrans Memorial Airport (Missouri River)
As noted above there are both pluses and minuses to locating an airport in a riverine environment. The potential pluses include the following:
- Level topography – particularly useful in mountainous regions
- Buffer on one side – the river side of the site provides a natural space and noise buffer from adjacent land uses
- Take-off/approach corridor – if the river is straight enough it can provide an approach/take-off corridor with limited obstacles
- Land cost – since the land is likely to be situated in the floodplain, the acquisition costs may be less, but there will likely be elevated insurance costs
- Potential for unique multi-modal transport facilities like a seaplane base or even an air/water connection for freight or passengers (The Philadelphia Seaplane Base is just downstream from the International Airport)
- Accessibility – many riverine airport site are more closely situated to the urban core, thereby improving accessibility and land travel costs (Thank you for this addition, Basil).
The potential minuses include:
- Flooding/flash floods – a flood would cause long and costly delays – even dry rivers like the Salt in Phoenix include the risk of flash floods
- Environmental regulations – many more creatures and/or sensitive habitats being impacted than in upland areas.
- Weather – river valleys are notorious for fog; in addition, certain rivers develop ice jams that could cause site damage.
- Emergency response – waterborne emergency response planning and infrastructure are necessary.
- Bird collisions – the presence of water increases chances for nesting and migrating waterfowl.
- Difficulty expanding – certainly cannot dam up the river, at least not without causing a lot of problems and legal entanglements.
- Weaker soils – given the soggy nature of some of these sites, the soils may need to be engineered to withstand the weight loads required for commercial aviation.
- Levees and other specialized construction – might be necessary to limit/prevent flooding.
- Prime farmland/riparian buffers – developing/expanding an airport along would mean the loss of prime farmland and/or riparian buffers.
- Pollution – stormwater pollution runoff from the airport into the adjacent surface waters.
Please feel free to provide any other suggested pluses and minuses of situating an airport in a riverine environment.