In this era of time-space compression, people, goods, and ideas move about Earth faster and in greater numbers than ever before. Human civilization has always revolved around nodes and flows, as ancient trading centers and trade routes demonstrate. What makes the era we’re in now unique is the degree to which transportation and communications infrastructure have accelerated these flows, erasing the physical distance between the nodes. But much in our interconnected world, for instance most commodity chains, remains out of sight under the surface. Only when a factory collapse in Bangladesh splashes the headlines are we reminded of the long and convoluted paths that stuff takes on its way from raw materials to the shelves at Wal-Mart.
Air travel removes some of the abstractness of these global flows, crystalizing them into observable, measurable units: airplanes, passenger manifests, and route networks. Next time you are at the airport, look around at the other airlines in the departure hall, at the other destinations on the departure board, and you will learn a lot. For an airline to operate a route, insure it, staff it, market it, and pay the airport landing fees, there must be a real demand for this route.
Airline route maps are a familiar sight. A staple of in-flight magazines, route maps have now hit the internet with interactive route maps like Air Asia’s. Meanwhile, virtual collections like Departed Flights let you walk down memory lane with route maps of yesteryear. Check out some of the maps of Pan Am in the 1950s. New York was almost as internationally connected then as it is today. Of course, some of the destinations (like Dakar, Senegal) were necessary as stopovers when the distance a jet could travel was shorter.
Route maps usually display the route network of a single airline, but the maps I made for this series are different. They show all the possible destinations that can be reached nonstop from a single airport, regardless of the airline. A map likes this can tell us a lot about a city’s place in the world, letting us make inferences about tourism, immigration patterns, and city’s role in the global and in regional economies.
I started this project with a very local focus, looking only at flights emanating from China’s Yunnan province, where I’ve been based for the last five years. The provincial capital Kunming opened a brand new airport to much fanfare in 2012. The city is only ranked 24th in China by population, but its airport ranks 7th in traffic. Much of that traffic is domestic and is due to tourism.
This first map shows every mainland Chinese city connected by nonstop routes to Kunming. We can see that Kunming is connected not just to every provincial capital in the country, but to dozens of secondary and tertiary cities. I thought my Chinese geography was pretty good, but I learned several new place names making this map. Kunming’s high domestic connectivity owes a lot to the tourism industry which is so important in the province. In this way, its airport plays a similar domestic role as Las Vegas does in the US. But in fact Kunming is not all that unusual in China for its number of connections. Larger cities like Beijing and Shanghai have even more connections.
Things get more interesting when we look at Yunnan’s other airports and their connectivity. Tourist destinations like Lijiang and Xishuangbanna enjoy multiple connections other other Chinese cities, and even small regional airports like Baoshan and Pu’er have routes to places like Beijing. Combining the information on the above two maps, we can see that the two competing models of route network design—point to point, and hub and spoke— are both alive and well in China.
But what sets Yunnan’s air network most apart from other provinces are its 17 intra-provincial routes, those which do not even cross provincial lines. I found that most provinces have very few of these sorts of routes. Sichuan, with a population twice that of Yunnan, has only five. Many of Eastern Sichuan’s airports don’t even bother with fights to Chengdu, because they’re well connected with Chengdu by highways. Inner Mongolia has 19 and Xinjiang 13, but they’re exceptions because they cover vast areas.
The density of Yunnan’s intraprovincial routes is due both to tourism and to the province’s mountainous terrain which makes journeys by car, bus, and train long and arduous (for example, the trip from Kunming to Dehong takes 12 hours by car, but just 1 hour by plane). Each of Yunnan’s eleven regional airports is connected to Kunming, and several routes connect one regional airport to another. A tourist wishing to travel from Yunnan’s tropical south to the Tibetan plateau in the north could travel nearly 24 hours by bus, or 90 minutes by plane.
And Yunnan’s provincial air space is about to get even busier, with the construction of four new airports, all of them built to expand developing markets for tourism. Yunnan’s not the only province building new airports; 23 of China’s 29 provinces (excluding provincial-level cities like Beijing) have new airports currently under construction or planned. Unlike those in Yunnan, built specifically with a tourism market in mind, most of China’s new airports are in prefecture-level cities and will simply serve local markets and their basic travel needs.
Let’s now jump from the national to the international scale. For a provincial city, Kunming has an impressive number of international flights. It has no transcontinental flights, however. The longest ones are to Dubai and Seoul, both in Asia. Kunming specializes in flights to South and Southeast Asia. It is the only Chinese city with flights to Chiang Rai, Mandalay, and Myanmar’s new capital Naypyidaw. It serves as a hub airport for China Eastern passengers from Eastern China wishing to travel on to destinations like Dhaka, Kolkata, and Kathmandu. This is very much in keeping with the idea of Kunming as China’s “Bridgehead to South Asia” as promoted by both the Kunming and Beijing governments. Word has it that Kunming’s first route outside Asia will be one to Melbourne. Chengdu, the other major airport in Southwest China, already has a leg up on Kunming, with routes to Melbourne, London, Amsterdam, Frankfurt, and a new route to San Francisco which opened in June 2014.
This is where I decided to step back several levels, and see where Kunming fits into the larger scheme of things, relative to China’s other major airports. The above infographic shows the top eight airports in China for international connectivity (Kunming is #6). Clearly, China’s “Big Four” of Beijing, Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Guangzhou, enjoy far better international and intercontinental coverage. Beijing, being China’s center of government, sees many connections which probably have more diplomatic importance, while Shanghai’s international connections seem much more based on business ties. Each of the big four has different regional strengths. Beijing has the most flights to Russia, Shanghai the most to Japan, Hong Kong the most to India, and Guangzhou the most to Australia. Urumqi’s (#8) international connections are, not surpringly, almost entirely concentrated in Central Asia, with which it shares linguistic, cultural, and religious affinities.
Being an American in China, I often look at the world through the dual lenses of these two countries. After documenting the connectivity of China’s major airports, I naturally wanted to see how they stacked up against their counterparts in the US. In the above infographic, I’ve placed the eight most internationally connected airports in both the US and China side by side so they can be compared. At the top, they’re close. In fact, the #1 airports in both the US and China, New York, and Beijing, are tied for number of international routes at 113. China’s #2 and #3 Hong Kong and Shanghai are slightly more connected than their US counterparts Miami and Newark.
By the time we get down to #5 however major discrepancies emerge. The US airports all the way down the list are globally connected, with flights to five or six continents each. In contrast, Chinese airports from #5 down have route networks which are regional rather than global, with the vast majority of routes concentrated in Asia. This shows us that while the top tier of cities in China can be compared on the same plane as New York and Los Angeles, China’s second and third tier cities have yet to reach a level of development whereby airlines would seek more intercontinental routes. Remember, this doesn’t mean cities like Kunming aren’t globally conneted. You can still get from Kunming to almost anywhere in the world with a transfer or two. But that extra degree of connection embodied by the nonstop flight, and the economic demand underlying it, is missing.
If you’re intrigued by the maps in the above infographic, I’ve prepared a more detailed stand-alone version of each, complete with labels. Click on the following thumbnail for larger versions of these maps.
China’s Top 8
The most internationally connected city in China, with flights to every continent, including several to Africa, and Russia. The most routes from China to the US. The only Chinese city with a route to South America (Sao Paulo)
2. Hong Kong
Although Hong Kong is a special administrative district of China, I’ve included it here because it is after all in China’s sovereign territory since 1997 (Taiwan, on the other hand, I have not included in this series, and consider an “international” destination, much as the Chinese do at their own airports). It has the most connections to India and Australia in China.
China’s business capital has the most routes to Japan. It’s strong in the US, Europe, and Australia, but has just two routes to Africa and none to South America.
China’s biggest manufacturing and maritime shipping region has strong air connections with Southeast Asia, and the most routes to Africa after Beijing. Its connections to North America are weak, however, probably because of competition from nearby Hong Kong airport.
The last Chinese airport on the list with routes to North America, Europe, and Australia. The route to San Francisco just opened in June 2014.
As discussed in detail above, Kunming is a hub for flights to South and Southeast Asia, but has yet to grow out of this regional focus.
Though it falls behind Kunming in total number of international destinations, it does have something Kunming doesn’t: a route to Europe (Amsterdam). It also faces competition from nearby Shanghai.
Capital of China’s far west Xinjiang province, Urumqi’s numerous routes to Central Asian capitals and secondary cities serve both the local population, which have cultural affinities across the borders, and the wider China market as a hub.
The US Top 8
1. New York
Routes to every continent. Particularly strong in Africa, the Middle East, and Europe, with many seasonal direct flights to European holiday destinations which other US cities do not have.
Miami may have the second most international routes in the US, but they follow an extreme regional bias. Miami hands down is the United States’ hub for routes to South America. It has eleven different routes to Brazil alone! Yet in Europe it’s weak, and in Asia its presence is nonexistent.
Although it’s physically very close to New York’s JFK airport, Newark Airport serves a slightly different market, with strengths in Europe and India..
4. Los Angeles
The largest city on the west coast of the US, LAX has the most flights to Asia and the South Pacific, and a strong presence in nearby Mexico.
Atlanta Hartsfield is one of the busiest airports in the world by total passenger volume and flight movements, but most of that traffic is domestic. Still, its international network is nothing to be scoffed at.
O’Hare is another very busy hub airport, but like Atlanta, the majority of its traffic is domestic. Still, its international network is fairly wide, covering five continents. Not surprisingly, it connects to the most Canadian destinations of any US city.
A hub for American Airlines, Dallas has routes to every continent but Africa, and the most destinations in Mexico of any US airport.
8. Washington D.C.
The US capital naturally enjoys fairly good connections across a broad swath of the globe. There is a clearly stronger diplomatic bent to its connections than other US cities.
If you have noticed that this series has a bias towards the US and China, you are be correct. In order to provide some more global context, I ranked the top 20 world cities for number of international airline routes (see info-graphic), and to my surprise found that Beijing and New York occupy #19 and 20 in the list. That means 18 other world cities are better connected. Among these, the vast majority are European. London alone has 327 international routes. It must be said, however, that European countries, by nature small, with few domestic routes, and surrounded by other small nation states, naturally have more international flights. If the member states of the EU were counted as a single nation these statistics would look very different. Dubai, Doha, and Istanbul are in this list because of their strategic location as hubs between Europe, Asia, and Africa. Singapore, Bangkok, and Taipei rank high mainly because they, like European countries, are small, and each one has numerous connections to mainland China, all of which increase their tallies.
Finally, I look at which foreign destinations are the most connected to the US and China, respectively. In the US it is Toronto, with 44 connections. That means 44 different US airports operate direct routes to Toronto. Major European destinations London and Frankfurt and Paris are in the top ten, as are several holiday destinations in Mexico and the Caribbean.
Across the pond, Taipei is the most connected foreign city, with routes to 44 distinct mainland Chinese cities. This is significant, as it was only in 2008 that the first flights were opened between Taiwan and the mainland. At first, it was only eastern cities like Xiamen and Shanghai, but now cities across China have direct flights to both Taipei and the southern Taiwanese city of Kaohsiung (#4 on the list). A few holiday destinations make it onto the list, like Phuket, but the majority are nearby east Asian cities which probably draw more business than pleasure travelers.
A few notes about the methodology used in this project. I counted seasonal flights but not charter flights. I counted destinations within a country’s sovereign territory as representing one country. Thus, we find that there are six distinct Dutch destinations which can be reached from US cities. Only one of these is in the Netherlands proper. The others are Caribbean islands within Dutch territory. Likewise for territories of the US, China, France, and the UK.