Future-Proofing American Air and Marine Transportation

Promoting Economic Recovery through Infrastructure Improvements

The COVID-19 outbreak has dealt a heavy blow to US ports, airports, and their labor forces. The particularly severe impacts of the pandemic upon American air travel and its workers have made national headlines since the onset of the crisis, with thousands of airport employees and workers in supporting industries having already lost their jobs. The pandemic has also hurt American maritime transportation. Compared to 2019, cargo transiting US ports have declined by 12% in February and 18% in March, and ports nationwide report fewer work shifts and underutilized capacity.

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These sectors also face the looming threat of climate change, which will precipitate extreme weather and sea level rise. Over the 21st century, port facilities will be increasingly exposed to these threats, which can damage equipment and infrastructure, lower operational efficiency, and reduce the economic competitiveness of US ports. This is likewise true of airports. Extreme weather can disrupt flight operations and damage runways, terminals, and other infrastructure. For instance, the flooding of all three major New York area airports during Hurricane Sandy caused 20,000 canceled flights, $2.2 billion dollars in total damages, and $200 million dollars in lost airline revenue. And for airports in coastal cities, even modest sea level rise can threaten to flood runways, as twelve major US airports have a runway located less than 3.7 meters above mean sea level. The need for upgrades to guard against such impacts adds to already acute problems presented by America’s increasingly outdated port and airport infrastructure and long backlogs of projects stalled by insufficient federal funding and policy support.

The threat facing these sectors is matched by their centrality to the US economy. Nationally, airports generate $1.1 trillion in economic activity and support nearly 10 million US jobs. With roughly a quarter of American yearly imports and exports by value traveling as airborne cargo, US air transportation also plays a vital role in commerce. Meanwhile, waterborne freight provides essential access to world markets, carrying 75% of internationally traded goods by weight, by far the largest shares of any mode of freight transportation. Port activity supports almost 31 million US jobs and the port sector represents a total economic value of $5.4 trillion USD. Both sectors also anticipate considerable long-term growth. Global freight demand may triple by 2050 and global air passenger ridership could double by 2037, with the US market adding 481 million passengers.

Faced with the threats of the pandemic, climate change, and aging infrastructure, the aviation and marine shipping sectors represent a strong candidate for bipartisan, federally-funded economic recovery efforts. Support for these sectors can reduce the economic fallout of the current crisis by driving job growth across diverse regions of the country in the near-term while also preparing our transportation networks for tomorrow’s challenges. Potential mechanisms for expanding and accelerating port and airport infrastructure projects are outlined below.

Read the full report here.


  • The ongoing COVID-19 crisis is hurting the US air travel and marine shipping sectors, which are already threatened by climate change and insufficient funding for needed infrastructure.
  • Federal support for these sectors as part of economic recovery efforts offers synergistic opportunities to promote near-term economic activity and environmental improvements while modernizing America’s international gateways for the challenges of the future.
  • Total federal spending of $10.5 billion could generate 101,000 direct and indirect jobs.