Atlanta: Aviation and Increasing Employment in Two Major Industry Sectors

Case Study – Hub size: large | Economic strength of region: information technology

ATL Case Study

The metropolitan Atlanta region is the economic hub of the American Southeast, home to the world’s busiest airport—Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL). The region was selected as a case study because of its size and the economic strength of employment in two sectors: (1) transportation, logistics, and warehousing and (2) information technology.

The Greater Atlanta Region

Introduction to the Region and Its Economy

In 2019, the Atlanta-Sandy Springs-Alpharetta metropolitan statistical area (MSA) had a population of over 6 million, ranking ninth in the country. The region is home to 16 Fortune 500 companies, including Delta Air Lines, Coca-Cola, Home Depot, UPS, and the Southern Company, as well as another 13 companies listed among the Fortune 1000. The region ranks third nationally for Fortune 1000 headquarters. The region boasts a rapidly growing international population, and foreign investment has increased over time. In 2018, Metro Atlanta was home to more than 2,700 foreign-owned companies.

According to the Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC), the metropolitan planning organization for the region, the area’s freight and logistics sectors are a key component of the region’s economic base, responsible for 38 percent of the total regional economic output. Metro Atlanta’s global logistics presence is built in part on its airport; ATL is the 14th busiest cargo airport in the United States by landed weight.

20082019Change #Change %
Population (000s)5,9306,85392316%
Total Employment (000s)3,6074,44583823%
Source: U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis (BEA)

The U.S. Cluster Mapping Project’s data show that transportation and logistics (including air transportation, trucking, ground transportation, and support activities) made up the third largest “traded cluster” in the metro area in terms of total employment. Among traded clusters, it trailed only in business services (e.g., corporate headquarters, computer services, consulting, and engineering), and distribution and electronic commerce (which includes warehousing and storage along with wholesale suppliers of professional and commercial equipment and supplies). The area’s economy also features several other top-performing traded clusters, including marketing, design, and publishing and communications equipment and services.

Another industry sector where greater Atlanta has a competitive advantage is information technology, based on analyses of the strength of employment in the sector compared to national averages.

Overview of the Airport and Its Air Service

Home to Delta Air Lines, ATL offered nonstop service to 150 domestic and 75 international destinations in 2019. Between 2008 and 2019, total O&D traffic rose by more than 10 million (34%), and total passenger enplanements increased by nearly 20 million (22%).

ATL Total Passenger Traffic chart update
ATL Total Passenger Traffic

Over the same period, the total number of departures dropped by over 35,000 (-8%, from roughly 468,000 to 432,000). However, available outbound seating capacity rose by 14%, from 55 million seats to 63 million seats. As a result, the average number of available seats per departing aircraft increased from 118 to 145 (23%).

The airport reported that airlines carried a total of over 600,000 metric tons of cargo in 2019—40 percent of which was carried domestically and 60 percent internationally (freight and belly cargo). From 2013 through 2019, total tonnage handled at the airport increased by 37,000 tons (6 percent), with international tonnage increasing more than domestic tonnage.


ATL connectivity
ATL Connectivity Growth Index (2008 = 100)

“Connectivity” generally means the ability to reach a wide range of places in a short amount of time. Connectivity creates efficiencies that make firms more productive, which in turn attracts more businesses that have their choice of locations.

Given the volume and variety of air service at ATL, the airport is among the most connected in the world. In 2019, ATL ranked 12th in the world and third in the United States in terms of total connectivity (including both domestic and international service).

The “Connectivity” figure indexes the change in connectivity at ATL between 2008 and 2019. ATL was not immune to the impact of the Great Recession. ATL’s connectivity dipped for several years due to the industry-wide consolidation of air operations. The airport returned to its pre-recession levels by 2015 and maintained moderate growth in connectivity. From 2015 to 2019, connectivity increased by 15 percent.

Air Service and Economic Activity

ATL employment and O&D traffic
Relationship Between Total Regional Employment and Total O&D Traffic

Origin and destination (O&D) traffic at ATL is highly correlated with total local employment. In the figure “Relationship Between Total Regional Employment and Total O&D Traffic,” the correlation coefficient is 0.93. However, correlation does not establish causation. That is, it is not evident whether rising total employment levels lead to more air traffic or whether more air traffic leads to more total employment. The correlation between total O&D traffic and “aviation-reliant” industry sectors such as information technology; professional, scientific, and technical services; and management of companies is also a near-perfect at 0.983. Again, however, correlation does not equate with causality.

Stakeholder Perspectives on Contributions of Air Service to Economic Development

The greater Atlanta region has an extensive array of community and business stakeholders that are involved with air service and economic development concerns. Some key partners of ATL are listed in the table.

Public InstitutionsPrivate OrganizationsPublic-Private Partnerships
Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International AirportAirlines (most notably Delta Air Lines)Aerotropolis Atlanta Alliance
Atlanta Regional Commission (10 counties + City of Atlanta)Metropolitan Atlanta Chamber of CommerceAtlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau
Georgia Dept. of Economic Development
ATL and Its Major Air Service and Economic Development Stakeholder Organizations
  • The ARC is responsible for developing and updating the Atlanta Region’s Plan, including the Regional Transportation Plan. The ARC recognizes that ATL is the largest economic asset in the region, and its continued success will require regional coordination of land use, transportation, and economic development.
  • Aerotropolis Atlanta Alliance is a public-private partnership working to improve the regional economic competitiveness of the area around the airport.
  • The Metropolitan Atlanta Chamber of Commerce represents businesses, colleges and universities, and nonprofits across the 29-county region that makes up the nation’s ninth-largest market.
  • The Georgia Department of Economic Development is the state’s sales and marketing arm and is the lead agency for attracting new business investment, encouraging the expansion of existing industry and small businesses, as well as other initiatives.

Stakeholders meet regularly with airport officials to discuss related economic development matters. Because the airport and air service support employment and economic activity in these sectors, support for the airport and air service further contributes to the region’s overall development goals.

Communicating the Airport’s Economic Impact

ATL itself does not highlight its economic impact. There is no link on the website to the most recent analysis. There is only a single sentence reference: “ATL is the economic jewel of Georgia, generating a $34.8 billion economic impact for metro Atlanta.”

Several stakeholders noted the challenges of conveying economic concepts to the general public. The stakeholders have their own metrics by which they gauge performance, and these do not generally tie to the airport. Some of the metrics used are often applied to airport economic impacts—such as jobs supported and associated GDP. Some stakeholders suggested using individual stories to personalize how an individual’s employment or business is tied to the airport or airlines.

ATL Case Study – Full Report