However, modern airports are much more complex structures than just spaces and services you pass by to reach the aircraft. While operating on a level of global networks, an airport is at the same time an organisation on regional scale. Airports therefore play a significant role in regional development and economic growth; they collaborate with other stakeholders and businesses for commercial purposes and often are one of the largest employers. In this way, an economic approach to regional interconnections does not suggest an evident and immediate link between airports and a different type of organisation - universities.
The research conducted by a former visiting PhD student at Newcastle University has focused on uncovering this link through its potential and benefits beyond just economic contributions in North East and Tees Valley regions. Regional airports and universities are analysed alongside under an umbrella of spatial capital theory, developed by modern French geographer Jacques Levy. In a nutshell, spatial capital combines, on the one hand, mobility and, on the other hand, fixedness or social positioning within space. In this way, advantages of being mobile (or ‘mobility capital’), which are expanded and advanced by transport (airports in particular), are applied in a geographical place (the North East, for example).
Expert interviews conducted with participants from universities, airports, local authorities and other regional structures identify the prerequisites and potential benefits of collaboration among airports and universities in a region. One of an important precondition is the existence of social capital (included in spatial capital), meaning the wide formal and informal connections among experts due to long-lasting local residence and the overlaps in previous employment and networks. This could be, for example, a number of experts having worked at the former regional development agency or collaborated within the agency’s projects. Regional social capital, in turn, is one of the grounds to overcome a challenge of connecting both organizations with different inner structures - airport and university.
The research identified that one of the most significant and prospective benefits for both organisations, alongside the enhancement of universities’ internationalisation agenda expansion and academic mobility, is collaborative research and teaching activities and knowledge transfer. Airport can benefit from world-class research and innovations available at close proximity to improve technologies and services and invest in approaching air transport sustainability issues and image. Moreover, apart from innovations in sustainable development, local universities offer further research strengths. Among them are: the achievements in aging research as global challenge (Newcastle University); digital innovations and design (Northumbria and Teesside Universities); data science (Newcastle and Sunderland Universities); composite and advanced materials and cyber security (University of Sunderland). The universities and their research teams, in turn, can get an access to the airport’s site and facilities to test and apply the workings and to complement air- and aviation-related sciences and degrees with direct practice.
The potential of collaborative research is becoming more relevant in the context of the dramatic decrease in air travel intensity, which greatly affects both organisations. Airports are facing an overwhelming drop in operations and services consumption; and universities must adapt to constrained geographical distancing in research and teaching. While the prospect of international mobility is unclear, they both can focus on new forms of interconnection on a regional scale, for example, prospective collaborative research.
PhD in Urban Studies and former visiting student at Newcastle University
Gran Sasso Science Institute (L’Aquila, Italy)