If the airport authority had its way, it would be as easy to get to Paris, France, as it is to get to Paris, Tennessee. Members of Air France's North American sales and marketing team were in town last week for their annual meeting. Local leaders took the opportunity to push for a transatlantic flight from Memphis International to Paris' Charles de Gaulle.
"To have a second international flight ... would be an incredible advantage for us," says regional Chamber of Commerce president and CEO John Moore.
The airport has lobbied for similar flights before, and both Moore and Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority President and CEO Larry Cox say talks are in the early stages. Air France needs to study whether Memphis could support a flight to Paris. Northwest needs to see if a flight to Paris would cannibalize passengers from Memphis' only current international flight, to Amsterdam.
"Memphis is not a large market. We're not New York," says Cox. "The reason we have a Memphis to Amsterdam flight is not because there are a large number of people flying between Memphis and Amsterdam. ... What we have are people flying into Memphis on Northwest [on their way to Amsterdam]."
Some passengers will stay in Amsterdam, but others will use that city's KLM hub to continue traveling to other places in Europe, the Middle East, or Africa.
If the numbers work, the flight to Paris could have the city saying "mais oui." And it's not just because we'll have a straight shot to the City of Lights. "It would duplicate the economic impact of having the flight we've had to Amsterdam for the past 12 years," says Cox. According to a University of Memphis study, the annual impact of the airport on the region was $21 billion. The economic impact of the Amsterdam flight was $100 million over 10 years.
"It's nice to have service to Europe and beyond, but more importantly, it's the access to our community from the rest of the world," says Moore, himself a former Northwest executive. "If people don't have an easy way to get to Memphis, we'll have a hard time luring international tourists to visit or business people to do business with us. Accessibility is an important factor to any economy."
In fact, accessibility is perhaps more important than location. In December, University of North Carolina professor and urban planner John Kasarda will be in town to talk about his theory that cities should -- and will -- grow around airports. Calling his city of the future the "aerotropolis," Kasarda says connectivity will be key in the coming global economy.
Cities at crossroads, be they natural or man-made, have always been areas of growth and prosperity. One has to look a mere hour's flight east to see that the trend continues today.
"Traditionally, if you wanted to fly internationally, you would have to go to an East Coast airport like New York or a West Coast airport like Los Angeles," says Cox.
While the airline industry was still under federal regulation, Delta began building a hub in Atlanta.
"That's how the airport grew and the city of Atlanta grew," says Cox, "because Delta essentially invented the connecting hub. When the airlines were deregulated in 1978, they had a big start. Because they had all this connecting traffic, they were able to start international flights out of Atlanta way before a city like Birmingham or Memphis could." Now Atlanta has a metro area of over 5 million people and, because of economic growth, a large local market for international flights.
But passengers aren't the only part of the story.
A piece about the aerotropolis in the July 2006 issue of Fast Company cites staggering statistics: In the past 30 years, global gross domestic product has increased 154 percent but the value of air cargo has risen a dramatic 1,395 percent. Forty percent of the economic value of the world's goods are shipped by air, as are more than 50 percent of U.S. exports. And Joel Garreau, the cultural-revolution correspondent of The Washington Post, had this to say: "Because of the airport, it's possible to imagine a world capital in a place that was an absolute backwater."
Memphis is the world's busiest cargo airport -- and has been for 14 years -- but progress may be flying by.
Moore says that at least three cities are building airports to rival ours: Bangkok, Dubai, and Guangzhou, China.
"They have grasped the notion of access," he says. "The points by which products flow on a global basis are where thriving economies will exist in the future. ... They're saying, let's be Memphis but better.
"We have to take Memphis and make it better before they do."