This study analyzes the sustainable feasibility of major airports in China in terms of airport operational efficiency (AOE). As AOE should be measured by economic performance as well as qualitative service management such as delay rate abatement, our study uses a multi-input/output slack-based data envelopment analysis model. We find that the 37 major airports in China have very low AOE levels, with an average of 48.2% during the study period of 2016–2019, implying great potential to enhance their efficiency. Even though the AOE trend is increasing upwards, it is still very much behind in terms of global standards. Moreover, this upward trend may come from external factors in the commercially driven eastern region airports and politically supported western region airports, and the AOE gap with airports in the central region is becoming larger. This implies that most airports in China are not yet self-sustaining. There are two ways for these airports to enhance AOE: more investment in infrastructure, such as airport facilities, and management upgrades from peer-learning efforts. We examined the feasibility of these two optimal paths and found that there is no need for decreasing returns to scale, implying that most of the airports can improve their AOE through additional investment, except for the eight airports with constant returns to scale, such as Beijing and Guangzhou. Moreover, each of the individual airports should learn from the top benchmarking airports on the production frontier. This study emphasizes the role of qualitative service performance and concludes that customized, self-sustaining innovation is required for all of the 37 major airports in China.
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