Who Owns Airports?

Airports are complex parts of a nation’s infrastructure, not just in terms of what goes on there each day, and how many interfacing components there are that make an airport operate successfully, but also in terms of their ownership models.

There is no single ‘one size fits all’ ownership model applied to airports around the world. There are many different arrangements that can be seen as a spectrum ranging from full public (national or local government) ownership to full private ownership.

Who Owns Airports?

Perhaps the more interesting question is ‘who operates airports?’ because airports can remain fully in public ownership but can be fully operated by the private sector through a public-private partnership (PPP) concession agreement; various airports in India are a good example of this arrangement. And, to further complicate the matter, public sector companies such as the Spanish airport operator, AENA, operate their own state airports but have also branched out into the management of overseas airports.    

In this article, I explore the various approaches to airport ownership and operations adopted around the world and look at the complex components of an airport’s operation. I’ll also reveal the ownership structures of some of the world’s biggest airports; you might be surprised at what you read.

Airport Ownership Models

Traditionally, airports were financed, built, and operated by government entities, either at the local/state level or the national level. Since the 1950s, there has been a trend to move away from direct government ownership and management of airports, towards a greater role for the private sector.

The extent to which this trend has been adopted varies greatly from country to country, with some countries, such as the UK and Australia, fully embracing airport privatization, and other countries, such as the USA, only now taking tentative steps towards airport privatization.

And the term ‘privatization’ covers a multitude of arrangements. Privatization of major transportation assets such as airports can be considered as a spectrum ranging from the corporatization of a state-owned enterprise (the airport) to full ownership and operational control of the airport by a private sector entity.

Bangkok Airport

Between these two ends of the spectrum, there can be various PPP arrangements, such as concessions, where the airport ownership is retained by the government but operations are done by a private sector company.

Where an airport is fully sold to become a private company, the selling government often retains a minority shareholding given the strategic importance of airports to a nation’s infrastructure system and economy.

There are many reasons why a government may proceed with an airport privatization program. These include:

  • Access to new sources of infrastructure financing
  • Capital receipts to government
  • Improved efficiency in the delivery of capital investment projects
  • Improved operational efficiency
  • Improved customer experience

Let’s take a look at some of the more common airport ownership arrangements on the spectrum using real airports as examples:

Corporatization – Singapore Changi Airport

In July 2009 the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) was reorganized to split off the operations of Changi Airport from the rest of the CAAS.

The split created a new corporate entity responsible for the management and operation of Changi Airport, delivery of airport emergency services, and operations and investments in foreign airports. The remaining CAAS retained its strategic and regulatory functions, in particular international relations, air services negotiations, allocation and licensing of air services, safety, security and service regulation, air traffic services, and the running of the Singapore Aviation Academy. 

The corporatization was aimed at strengthening Changi Airport’s position as a premier air hub by enabling it to be more agile to compete in the rapidly changing world of civil aviation. The corporatization of Changi Airport is one of the most successful examples of corporatization and gives the airport company more freedom and flexibility in how it operates and develops.

In this case, the corporatization seems to have struck the right balance between managing the airport based on a commercial approach, while maintaining ownership within the public sector.

Concession – Queen Alia International Airport, Jordan

There are different types of concession agreements.

One of the most common is Build, Operate, Transfer (BOT) where a private sector company (usually a consortium) enters into an agreement with the government to plan, finance, develop, and operate an airport for a set period of time (the concession period), e.g. 25 or 30 years. At the end of the concession period, the concession is either renegotiated and extended, awarded to another operator, or returned to the government.

This model transfers most of the risk (but most of the reward too) to the private sector, since it would be responsible for planning, financing, executing, and operating the airport.

An example is Queen Alia International Airport in Jordan. The concession bid to operate the airport was won by, and awarded to, Airport International Group (AIG) in 2007.

AIG is a Jordanian company that is 51% owned by Aéroports de Paris (AdP). As part of the concession, AIG was required to invest significant capital to deliver new terminal infrastructure to allow up to 16 million passengers per annum (MPPA) to travel through the airport, up from the original 3.5 MPPA capacity at the start of the concession period.   

Full Divestiture – Australian Airports

A majority equity sale or full divestiture transfers control from the government to the private sector. One example is the Australian airport privatization program.

This ownership model was pioneered in the UK with the privatization of the British Airports Authority in 1986. This model is most suitable to mature and well-developed airport markets and allows the government to monetize its prior investments. 

The Australian airport privatization program started in 1997 with the sale of Melbourne, Brisbane, and Perth Airports. The sale of Adelaide, Canberra, and Gold Coast airports followed. A number of remaining smaller airports were privatized in 1998, Sydney Airport in 2002, and the Sydney Basin airports of Bankstown, Camden, and Hoxton Park in 2003.

The divestments involved sales of the airport assets over long-term leases (50 years + options for 49 year extensions) to various private sector consortiums which have full rights to develop and operate the airports.

Sydney Airport

Which Ownership Model Is Better?

There’s no clear answer to this question.

The most appropriate model for a particular airport will depend on the nature of the airport (its size, and role), and government objectives. A key point to make is that public sector ownership does not mean that there can be no private sector involvement or expertise involved.

The variety of ownership and operational models around the world show us that airports that remain within the public sector are able to employ a whole range of options to bring in private sector know-how and through concession agreements, and management and service contracts.

Do the Runways, Terminals, Control Towers, and Other Facilities All Have the Same Operator?

Given the wide range of ownership models that we see around the world, you can guess that the answer to this question is not straightforward, and there are many different arrangements for how the infrastructure at an airport is carved up and operated. Although, having said that there are some standard ways of doing things.

The air traffic control tower (ATCT) is most commonly operated separately from the airport operations. Usually, the ATCT is in the hands of a state-run operator, or a separate private sector operator under contract to the government.

Airport Control Tower

In most cases, the airport terminals and the airfield (runways and taxiways) are operated by a single operational entity – the airport operator, whether this is the government, a government-owned company, a PPP, or a fully private company.

In some cases, the airport terminal(s) and airfield have separate operators. An immediate example that springs to mind is Mactan-Cebu International Airport in the Philippines. The terminals are operated by a private sector company (a consortium comprising Megawide and GMR) under a PPP agreement, whereas the airfield is operated by a government-owned and controlled entity – the Mactan Cebu International Airport Authority.

In the USA most airports are under overall government ownership and control. However, there are many cases where terminal buildings are leased to and operated by airlines, with some also financed by joint ventures that include airlines. In these instances, the airport and airfield remain within the control and operation of local, regional, or state government entities.

Airport Runway

The World’s Major Private Sector Airport Groups

Whilst many airports around the world have individual owners, there are a number of private sector companies that have a large portfolio of airports within their control, either through ownership or through PPP concession agreements.

Some of these companies are major players in the airport sector with a growing number of airport assets under their belts. A number of these collaborate in joint ventures to manage major airports worldwide.

The private sector airport world is also further complicated, as some of these major operators collaborate and have taken up shareholdings in other airport operating groups, e.g. Group AdP and GMR, Schiphol Group and Group AdP, AdP and TAV Airports.

Let’s take a look at some of the most significant companies that have major airport interests:

Company Headquarters Airport Interests*
AENA Madrid, Spain 46 airports in Spain, and 23 airports globally in Mexico, the UK, Colombia, and Jamaica
Vinci Paris, France 53 airports in Portugal, France, the UK, Cambodia, the USA, Japan, Brazil, Chile, Serbia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic
Group AdP Paris, France 26 airports in France, Jordan, India, Chile, Belgium, Tukey, Guinea, Croatia, Mauritius, Netherlands, Saudi Arabia
Zurich Airport Zurich, Switzerland 10 airports in Switzerland, India, Brazil, Chile, Curaçao, Colombia
Fraport Frankfurt, Germany 24 airports in Germany, Bulgaria, Greece, Slovenia, and the USA
Ferrovial Madrid, Spain 6 airports in the UK, Turkey, and the USA
Changi Airports Group Singapore 11 airports in Singapore, Brazil, China, India, Japan, the Philippines, and Russia
GMR New Delhi, India 6 airports in India, the Philippines, and Greece
Adani Ahmedabad, India 7 airports in India
TAV Airports Istanbul, Turkey 15 airports in Turkey, Georgia, Tunisia, North Macedonia, Saudi Arabia, Latvia, Croatia, and Kazakhstan
Manchester Airports Group Manchester, UK 3 airports in the UK

*A wide variety of arrangements exist, including minority shareholding, full management and development concession contract, and full ownership and operations.

Airport Ownership and Operations in the USA

The USA is notable for not having traveled very far down the airport privatization route. There is only one fully privatized airport within USA territory (Luis Munoz Marin International Airport, San Juan, Puerto Rico). More than 500 commercial airports in the USA are owned by state and local governments; the federal government provides financial aid for capital improvements. 

However, this is not to say there is no private sector involvement in US airport operations, in fact, there’s quite a lot. Whilst actual ownership of US airports rests with state and local governments, a variety of airport terminals, or parts of airport terminals, are operated by private sector entities.

The numerous US public sector airports contract out a variety of services and operational aspects of their airports (e.g., retail concessions) to private sector companies, and a few US airports — such as Albany International and Stewart International — have taken a step further and contracted with private firms to manage the overall airport operation.

Albany International Airport is operated by Avports on a long-term lease, while Stewart International Airport is operated by a joint venture, Future Stewart Partners, comprising AdP and Avports. Other US airports have entered long-term agreements with private firms to design, build, and manage new terminals. Terminal 5 at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport and Terminal 6 at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport are examples of this approach.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (PANYNJ) has been particularly active in bringing in private sector expertise to help develop and run the five airports it continues to own.

Who Owns the World’s Largest Airports?

The current top ten league of world airports, as measured by total passenger numbers, is dominated by US airports. Traffic patterns and passenger volumes at airports around the world are still significantly affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.

However, if we look at Airport Council International’s 2021 list of top 10 airports, as measured by international passengers, we see more of a mix.

Let’s take a look at the ownership arrangements of this top 10 list of airports:

Rank Airport 2021 International Passengers, millions Airport Owner Ownership Model
1 Dubai, DXB 29.1 Dubai Airports Company Public corporatization
2 Istanbul, IST 26.5 Consortium comprising Kalyon Insaat, Cengiz Insaat, Limak, and Mapa Private sector consortium
3 Amsterdam, AMS 25.5 The Schiphol Group comprising the Dutch State, the Municipalities of Amsterdam and Rotterdam, and ADP Private company majority owned by national and local governments, and with minority shareholding by the private sector
4 Frankfurt, FRA 22.7 Fraport Private company majority owned by national and local governments, and with minority shareholding by the private sector/ individual investors
5 Paris, CDG 22.6 AdP Private company majority owned by the French government, and with a variety of other corporate, institutional, and individual investors; these include Vinci and The Schiphol Group
6 Doha, DOH 17.7 Doha Airports Company Public corporatization
7 London, LHR 17.6 Heathow Airport Holdings Inc. (Ferrovial S.A., Qatar Investment Authority, Caisse de dépôt et placement du Québec (CDPQ), GIC, Alinda Capital Partners, China Investment Corporation, and the Universities Superannuation Scheme (USS) Private sector consortium
8 Antalya, AYT 17.1 Consortium comprising of FRAOPRT and TAV Private company
9 Madrid, MAD 15.3 AENA Public corporatization
10 Cancun, CUN 13.3 Grupo Aeroportuario del Sureste Private sector company with Government minority share

What we see from this top ten list is that there is a lot of private sector involvement in the ownership and operations at these airports. But governments are also significantly and successfully involved too, either through running airports as corporatized entities or as part of listed companies with majority shares.

Tokyo Haneda Airport    


Airport ownership is a complex topic, and there are a wide variety of ways in which airports around the world and owned and managed. These range from complete government ownership to complete ownership by the private sector, with many options in between.

When it comes to airport ownership there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach. The most suitable approach will depend on many factors, including the size and role of the airport, how ‘mature’ the aviation sector is in the country concerned, and the government’s objectives for its airports, as well as its attitude to privatization of its national strategic assets.

What is very clear is that public ownership does not mean there can be no private sector involvement in the running of the airport.

There are many examples around the world, where airports that are still in the hands of national or local state governments are either partially or fully operated by private sector companies. Even in the USA, where privatization of airports can be said to be lagging behind the rest of the world, private sector entities are increasingly getting in on the act when it comes to airport operations.

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