Howard Raiffa and Airport Development

Yesterday, I read Sam Roberts’s New York Times obituary of the distinguished statistician and decision scientist Howard Raiffa. Raiffa was one of the “founding fathers” of the Harvard Kennedy School, and it was in his capacity as one of the core instructors in the early years of Harvard’s MPP Program that I got to know him.

Raiffa made a complicated subject easy to understand and brought clarity and enthusiasm to the classroom. As Roberts noted, Raiffa made great efforts to show how applying theory to messy, real-world problems, could provide valuable insight for decision makers.

The example par excellance of Raiffa’s approach, mentioned in the first sentence of the obituary, was his application of decision theory to the siting of a new airport for Mexico City. One of the quirks of memory is that I retained the names of two sites under consideration, Texcoco and Zumpango, probably because they sounded so exotic.

Raiffa’s work influenced my own doctoral dissertation, which was about airport planning in Toronto, involving the more prosaically named existing airport, Malton, and alternative location, Pickering.

I looked back at what Raiffa recommended and what actually happened. Raiffa’s client, the Ministry of Public Works, wanted to close down the existing airport, which had become surrounded by the Mexico City conurbation, and build an entirely new airport at Zumpango, forty kilometers to the north. Raiffa recommended a more incrementalist approach, involving upgrading the existing airport before making a huge and irrevocable commitment to a new airport at Zumpango.

It turned out that the existing airport, now named Benito Juarez International Airport (BJIA) after the reformist nineteenth century president, has grown dramatically to a current day capacity of nearly 40 million passengers. While land was expropriated for a new airport in Zumpango in 1974, nimby opposition was successful in preventing development, and the expropriation was revoked during the presidency of Vincente Fox in 2001. But because BJIA has hit capacity, the Pena Nieto Administration has decided to build a new airport to replace it in Texcoco, which is closer to Mexico City.

The parallels with the Toronto story are unmistakable. Though the federal Ministry of Transport expropriated land for a second airport in Pickering, fifty kilometers to the east, strong nimby opposition prevented the realization of its plan and Pickering remains as farmland to this day. Malton was renamed Lester Pearson International Airport after a reformist twentieth century prime minister. It now accommodates 41 million passengers and has not yet reached its maximum capacity.

What happened in both Mexico City and Toronto – which Howard Raiffa likely anticipated almost 50 years ago – is that the capacity of existing commercial airports would increase due to improved avionics, restrictions on commercial aviation, and peak-load pricing on the air side as well as greater use of public transit on the ground side. In addition, nimbyism has made it much harder to expropriate land for new airports.

So, I conclude by celebrating Howard Raiffa’s clear and prescient thinking about airport capacity problems decades ago and by recognizing – with some satisfaction – that many countries, including Mexico and Canada, have implemented policies that have made good use of the social capital invested in airport infrastructure.

1 comment

  1. Howard Raiffa supervised my undergraduate honors thesis and helped me set up a research project in Israel on which the thesis was based. He was an inspiring teacher and a very kind man. I took a graduate-level course with him in my early years as an undergrad, which moved into high gear midway through, too late for me to withdraw once I realized that my ambitions exceeded my mathematical preparation. He helped me through. I remember him with great fondness, and the lessons he taught on good decisionmaking under uncertainty have stayed with me.

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