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Star Alliance Stresses That Airports Need to Design for Easy Connections

One of the panels at the Phoenix Aviation Symposium this year focused on the future of hubs, and the conversation quickly turned toward the importance of having the right facility in the right place. In particular, Star Alliance CEO Mark Schwab was very vocal about airport design as it relates to connections. I thought it was an interesting discussion, so I decided to bring it here.

Bad Connecting Airport

Mark, who was formerly with United before running the Star Alliance, emphasized that as soon as the Alliance hears that a new facility is being built, his team goes to sit down with the airport’s management as quickly as possible.

And why is it that Star Alliance cares so much? It wants to make sure that the facility is made with connections in mind. That may sound kind of funny since you always hear about the importance of the local, non-connecting passenger. But from an alliance perspective, connecting passengers are their bread and butter.

Mark was quick to hoist Munich’s Terminal 2 as an example of how things should be built. He said the terminal was “purpose built for connections” and it was designed for a 35 minute minimum connecting time. That makes connections very easy, and it makes them more likely to be attractive to passengers.

When searching for flights, total duration — the time it takes from takeoff on your first flight to landing on your last — is an important metric. Those flights with shorter durations are going to be listed higher. And of course, duration is something that travelers want to see as well, so that’s why you can usually sort by duration on most travel websites. If you can’t have a short connection in an airport, then those results won’t be shown as high and fewer people are likely to book them.

Think about an example of someone coming from the US to a secondary European city where a connection is required at a European hub. If you’re on Lufthansa (or United connecting to Lufthansa), you only need 40 minutes in Munich by rule. In London, on the other hand, you need more time if you’re flying the hub carrier. If you’re flying on British Airways and both your flights are in Terminal 5, then you “only” need an hour. (Though I know a lot of people who would never take a Heathrow connection with only an hour.) And if you’re coming from American to BA, the terminal change means you’ll need an hour and a half. That means, if United/Lufthansa schedule things correctly, they can really get people moving more quickly. And that’s going to win them business.

To give a more concrete example of the benefits of easy connections, when Star Alliance airlines co-located in the South Wing of Terminal 1 at Tokyo/Narita in 2006, they generated an incremental 1 million connections annually over what they had previously been able to do. Star is hopeful that they’ll see some benefit in, of all places, London when the new Queen’s Terminal opens in June. Interesting factoid: Heathrow sees service from more Star Alliance airlines than any other airport – an incredible 23 different operators (was 25 until TAM and US Airways left for oneworld).

So which airport is doing this wrong? Mark was not shy in mentioning Sao Paulo’s new terminal at Guarulhos, the city’s main international airport. Apparently it’s being built for local passengers and not connections, and that is, according to Mark, “unhelpful in the long term.” Other airports should take note.

Andrew Watterson from Southwest added a little bit of levity to the conversation, however, stating that “not every airport can be a 5-star connecting hub, so don’t build it if it won’t be that. If you aren’t going to be a mega hub, get the basics right at a good price.”

The other panelists agreed, and Mark jumped in to make it clear that building a terminal for connections does not mean making them palaces. “None of the airlines want to pay $40 a passenger if the basics can be delivered for $20.”

The conversation ultimately turned to the incredible work being done in the Gulf in terms of building airports that can efficiently handle connections. Steven Kavanaugh, Chief Commercial Officer for Aer Lingus, suggested that Dubai was “unstoppable.” The investment that had been made to allow for quick A380 to A380 connections means that Emirates has a huge advantage.

It’s not just Dubai, however. Doha is about to get a brand new airport. And Istanbul, particularly impressive versus the others because of the massive size of its local population, has plans for an airport behemoth that will have capacity to serve 150 million passengers a year.

You can be sure that these airports will all be built with connections in mind. And that could mean less business at other hubs, even those that are strong today.

[Original airport photo via Shutterstock]

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