The availability of cheap air flight increases collaborations between scientists, according to research by Christian Catalini, Christian Fons-Rosen and Patrick Gaule, to be presented at the Royal Economic Society''s annual conference at the University of Sussex in Brighton in March 2018. What''s more, researchers who are younger and more productive than colleagues in their departments seem to benefit most from the lower fares.

The study uses the differential timing of entry of Southwest Airlines, a major low-cost carrier, into different US cities. The authors find that once Southwest Airlines established a new route, scientific collaboration increases by 30-50%. The effect is present across different fields of science, and is stronger when weighting scientific output by its future impact. In other words, the additional collaborations induced by the lower fares are not of marginal quality.

The researchers conclude: ''Our study adds to a growing body of evidence documenting the importance of air travel connections for a wide range of economic outcomes.''

They also comment: ''While it has become easier to collaborate over distance, face-to-face meetings, often enabled by air travel, remain important for the production of knowledge.''


Scientific and technology discoveries are increasingly the results of collaborative efforts involving a growing number of individuals. Inter-institutional and distant collaborations are especially on the rise.

Why is that? Perhaps innovation has become harder over time, requiring the combination of knowledge and expertise held by different individuals. Alternatively, new communication technologies (including email, Skype, file storage on the cloud) may have made it easier for researchers to collaborate, especially over distance.

This study investigates another, complementary, possibility: that the increase in distant collaboration may also be the result of the considerable reduction in air travel costs that took place over time. For example, the cost per mile dropped by over 50% within the United States over the last 30 years.

The researchers use the differential timing of entry of Southwest Airlines, a major US low-cost carrier, across different US cities. After Southwest Airlines enters a new route, prices drop on average by 20% but a direct flight is not more likely to be available on this route.

Southwest entry leads to a large (30-50%) statistically significant increase in collaboration. The timing of the effect starts after Southwest entry (there is not a pre-trend in collaboration). The results are stronger for citation-weighted publications, which suggests that the work enabled by the cheaper fares is not of marginal quality.

The benefits from the lower fares, however, are not uniform across scientist types: younger scientists and scientists that are more productive than their local peers respond the most.

While the study is limited to the United States, there is every reason to believe that similar, and potentially bigger, effects have resulted from the expansion of budget airlines in Europe.

The results also suggest a nuanced role for place and co-location in the knowledge economy: while it has become easier to collaborate over distance, temporary co-location and face-to-face meetings (enabled by air travel) remain important for the production of knowledge.