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Understanding Airport Classification: A Beginner’s Guide

It’s important to understand the different types of airports and how they’re defined. Here’s what you need to know about airport classification.

It should come as no surprise to you that there are a lot of different airports. They actually have official designations. Understanding airport classification does not need to be complicated. Today we will run through some of the types you will encounter and how they are defined.


What is Meant by the Term Airport?

The term ”airport” has a set definition, and it isn’t simply an area where an airplane lands. It actually includes all of the facilities and infrastructure too.

The Federal Aviation Administration defines an “airport” as:

“Any area of land or water used or intended for landing or takeoff of aircraft including the appurtenant area used or intended for airport buildings, facilities, as well as rights of way together with the buildings and facilities.”


What Are the Classifications of Airports?

There are a couple of broad definitions when discussing airport classification: divided and then further subdivided.

According to the FAA, the two main types of airports are “primary” and “nonprimary.” The distinction is drawn due to the type of activity conducted at the airport and how frequent arrivals and departures are.

Within the two very broad headings, there are further distinctions made. They are:

  • Commercial Service Airports
    • Large Hub
    • Medium Hub
    • Small Hub
    • Non-Hub
  • General Aviation Airports
    • National
    • Regional
    • Local
    • Basic
    • Unclassified

While you may occasionally visit primary commercial service airports during your flight training, the majority of your flying will be to those which fall in the ‘general aviation’ category.

It will be beneficial to take a more in-depth look into the above definitions, especially those sitting under the heading of general aviation airports.


The Five General Aviation Airport Categories

National Airports

National airports, while supporting general aviation (GA), are very busy places. It is important to note that just because they are classed as ‘GA airports’ doesn’t mean they are small.

An example of a large national airport? Teterboro, New Jersey. This is an airport with constant arrivals of jet traffic and complex instrument approach systems. It acts as one of the main airports serving the city of Manhattan.

The regulatory body takes into account the following in its classification of airports. A national airport will have:

  • Greater than 5000 instrument departures or arrivals
  • 11 or more jet aircraft based at the airport
  • Greater than 20 international flights each year
  • More than 10,000 passengers taking off or landing
  • Over 500 million lbs. of cargo transiting each year

There are presently 84 national airports in the USA.

Regional Airports

Regional airports are much more prolific. There is a total of 467 at present in the United States.

These airports tend to be located in metropolitan areas and are generally only used for interstate travel. Over a third of all general aviation flying takes place at regional airports.

Again, these are very busy airports. The kind of services you can expect to see include air taxi operations, jet arrivals, and vast amounts of helicopter traffic.

To qualify as a regional airport, it must satisfy the following:

  • Be based close to a metropolitan area
  • Have at least 10 flights departing on journeys of 500 miles or greater
  • Have at least one jet aircraft based at the airport
  • Have 100 or more aircraft based at the airport

Local Airports

Local airports are the type used the most by general aviation aircraft. They account for nearly half of the general aviation flying performed each year.

Most flights will be performed by light piston engine-driven aircraft, making local flights.

There are around 1236 general aviation airports in the United States. And they are used predominantly as flight training centers.

They can still get pretty busy. To qualify as a local airport, they need:

  • Over 2500 passengers departing or arriving yearly
  • A minimum of 15 aircraft permanently based at the airport

Local airports have vital infrastructure, such as control towers, emergency services, and departure and arrival procedures.

Basic Airports

Basic airports, while significantly smaller, are still very prolific. There are 668 in the US alone.

This type of airport often includes single runways, limited infrastructure, and is used extensively for pleasure flying and training.

The criteria for an airport to be considered as ‘basic’ is as follows:

  • A minimum of 10 aircraft based at the airport
  • The airport may be either publicly or privately owned (as opposed to state-owned)
  • Be at least 30 nautical miles away from an NPIAS airport

Unclassified Airports

There is actually an abundance of unclassified airports nationwide. In fact, there are 497 of them! As they are unclassified, no set criteria define them. Generally, they include:

  • Decommissioned and repurposed military airfields
  • Private landing strips
  • ‘Mom and pop’ style private airfields
  • Airfields that don’t meet the above-required classification criteria


Why Does Airport Classification Matter?

By knowing what class an airport is in, you will have a good idea of what kind of traffic and procedures you can expect. Bigger regional and national airports are a serious business. You will need to have excellent knowledge of aeronautical regulations and procedures to navigate their airspace.

And this is even the case with smaller local airports.

Whether you are operating at a large national airport or practicing your landings somewhere unclassified, California Aeronautical University will be able to teach you the rules and procedures for safe arrival.

Our expert instructors have experience working in and around airports similar to the ones listed above. Who knows, after you graduate, the next time you visit a national airport, it might be to take a jet airliner across the Atlantic. With our career placement assistance, anything is possible.

Why not contact CAU today to find out about flight training enrollment?

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1 thought on “Understanding Airport Classification: A Beginner’s Guide”

  1. How interesting that you mention what it takes to qualify as an airport, like the number of passengers. I’m taking my family on a special vacation this year. I will find a good floatplane training course locally.

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