How Airports Influence The Spread Of Disease

Researchers identify the U.S. airports most likely to affect the transmission of epidemics.
Karin Heineman, ISTV Executive Producer

In 2003, severe acute respiratory syndrome, commonly known as SARS, killed hundreds of people. In 2009 H1N1 killed hundreds of thousands. These deadly pandemics can spread worldwide and air travel is a major player in spreading diseases.

Now, Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers have developed a new computer model that identifies which airports are most likely to spread diseases.

“Airports like JFK [John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York] and LAX [Los Angeles International Airport] would come in our ranking in first and second in terms of aggressiveness or potential for spreading a disease,” said Ruben Juanes, a geoscientist at MIT.

An airport's potential for disease spread is determined by its traffic – or how many passengers it serves per year, the number of connections, and if the flights involve mostly long-range travel.

“Atlanta [Hartsfield-Jackson] is the largest airport in the world, with the highest number of connections, yet in our ranking it comes out 8th or 9th, simply because many of those connections are regional connections,” said Juanes.

An airport location like Honolulu, Hawaii ranks high on the list because it’s a prime layover location for flights between the U.S. and Asia - making it a stepping stone for contagions to spread. It also connects flights to larger airports and has many long-range destinations worldwide.

“This type of analysis can lead to a better understanding of how diseases spread worldwide,” Juanes said.

Which Airports Are Most Likely to Influence the Spread of Disease? 

  • John F. Kennedy International (New York City)
  • Los Angeles International
  • Honolulu International Airport
  • San Francisco International Airport
  • Newark Liberty International Airport
  • O'Hare International Airport (Chicago)
  • Dulles International Airport (Washington, D.C.)
  • Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport (Atlanta)
  • Miami International Airport
  • Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport

Source: Nicolaides et al., "A Metric of Influential Spreading during Contagion Dynamics through the Air Transportation Network," PLoS ONE, 7(7), e40961 (2012).

Get Inside the Science:

New Model of Disease Contagion Ranks U.S. Airports in Terms of their Spreading Influence

Ruben Juanes, PhD

Author Bio & Story Archive

Karin Heineman is the executive producer of Inside Science TV.