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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44 Comments on "Star Alliance Stresses That Airports Need to Design for Easy Connections"

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SEAN
Guest

Brett,

How does this apply here in the US – can you give some examples both good & bad even if they are obvious?

Thanks.

jskyz
Guest
ok if I may give at least two examples if that’s ok with you. starting with the bad: MCI, LAX, ORD, CLT with MCI being the absolute worst, o’hair and Charlotte/Douglas International Airport have ok connections but if u have a connecting flight at the wrong part of the airport then things get pretty interesting and very are stressful if the flights are at the wrong location in the airport. the better airports for connections are: ATL, DEN, HOU although HOU is not as big as ATL and DEN hobby itself voids itself from the hectic spider web like terminals… Read more »
Lou
Guest

I think DTW is another airport that provides great connections. It is a long airport, but there are many-a people mover as well as the awesome indoor train overhead. I had a 40 minute connection between Concourse C and A and made it to my gate in about 15 minutes.

The underground pass between Concourse A and B/C is quite an experience too. Mood lighting as well as fanfare music accompanies you as you scurry along to either side.

Lastly, DTW is just open and airy with great views of planes at the gates.

Durcy
Guest

It is interesting that they make an example out of Munich (which is arguably a great connection terminal) and never mention Frankfurt – their main hub. Frankfurt is a total maze with million security checkpoints, missing signs on top of being very ugly (yes, I’m biased, I’ve recently missed a connection at FRA). I hope they are planning reorganization and simplification of their FRA operation because achieving 40 minute connection time in FRA would be absolutely amazing.

Jared Hanner
Member

A “good” example of “bad” would probably be LAX. International connections in the US are tough enough because all passengers have to go through passport control, baggage claim and customs (and then back through security), but then LAX is hard because the US Carriers are in different terminals from the international carriers (for the most part).

Don’t get me wrong, I have a special place in my heart for LAX, my home airport, but I never have to connect there. I am happy about that.

David SF eastbay
Guest

Any airport where you need to leave a secured area and be security checked again to get to another part of the airlport is bad when needing to make connections.

Other parts of the world just build new airports, but in the USA it’s just keep adding on to old airports where they can, but it’s just to add more gates and not make things better for the most part.

DC
Guest
With no international transit areas (everyone has to go through US immigration controls even if you’re only connecting through a US airport to a 3rd country) _every_ US airport an example of an unnecessarily bad experience for international connections. I wonder how much traffic US carriers lose to foreign carriers for travelers from Europe or Asia to South America or vice versa? Choosing between ICE lines at Miami or a European carrier without this hassle seems like an obvious choice. I’ve seen the argument that it’s necessary for security purposes but I’m not sure I buy it. They could still… Read more »
Adrian Jenkins
Guest
In the past, those of us travelling to the UK from NZ/Australia used to travel via the US because the baggage allowances were much better (the piece system – 2 pieces – each up to 32kgs/70lbs). However, many airlines have changed to the weight system, on flights to/from/via the USA (1 bag up to 23kgs/50 lbs or 30kgs/66lbs depending on the airline). This is the same baggage system that is used for travel via Asia. So, that advantage has gone. Certainly, when I travel from AKL to Europe, being able to transit in the relative ease of SIN, HKG, BKK,… Read more »
Dan Hill
Guest

Sydney is a shocker for international / domestic connections. The international and domestic terminals are on opposite sides of the airport and are connected by buses which literally run behind various aircraft hangers and other buildings. This is Australia’s primary international gateway. I’d call it third world but that would be an insult to third world airports. If you are ever flying to another Australian city and can avoid a connection via Sydney, take that option.

tharanga
Guest

Sounds like the layouts in India, at DEL and BOM. International and domestic on opposite sides of the airfield, so it’s a long shuttle bus (land-side) to connect in between. The new terminal at DEL is consolidating all that, but it doesn’t include some low-cost airlines

Eric A.
Member
Two things come to mind: from a first-hand perspective, I can attest that the pre-2003 TWOV (Traveling W/O Visa) program was a logistical mess and doomed for failure from it’s inception. It was incumbent on CSA’s and Flight Attendants to hold passports, ‘escort’ and monitor TWOVs from their arriving flight to their outbound flight with chain of custody sign offs at every pass point. It was labor intensive, chaotic and vulnerable to human error. “Loosing” people was a real danger and happened with alarming frequency. My second thought is that I can think of only a few major US Ports… Read more »
Pilotaaron1
Guest

Being from the PIT area I can say that the airport should be built to what the city needs. If someone hubs there then it is up to them to make it work. In the ever shifting world of airline travel, you can never rely on one thing. We have a great airport that I can just imagine how easy and efficient it would be to change planes. However it was also expensive which is why we are in our current situation. Which is sad and disappointing.

esw
Member
PIT is actually a well run airport that had favorable unit costs until US de-hubbed it. High costs resulted from the de-hubbing; they didn’t cause it. To survive Southwest’s East Coast growth and then-recent commencement of PHL service, US had to de-hub either PIT or PHL, and focus on the remaining city. PHL has a stronger local market and international operation, ergo… US was in “Chapter 22” bankruptcy, so they could legally reject the lease, shed the costs, and redeploy aircraft away from PIT. I believe they just wanted cover. US would have known that PIT management, with a residual… Read more »
jaybru
Member
Designing an airport for alliances is a crapshoot. Airlines seem to move in and out of alliances at the drop of the hat. Airports last much longer than most alliances. But, honestly, how about the convenience, or should I say inconvenience of a typical domestic connection between mainline and regional aircraft. Take UA for example, at SFO, EWR, or IAD, in all too many situations. Convenient? No way! Who’s to blame. The airport? Give me a break, UA, you decided on what aircraft you were going to use, not the airport And, about alliances, how about the confusion, and the… Read more »
noahkimmel
Member
agree completely. IT systems don’t talk to each other, even at the joint venture level of DL-AF or UA-LH which must handle thousands of codeshare pax each day. Codeshare is fed to the public as totally seamless when it rarely is. The tickets are not serviced well by marketing carrier (try picking an extra legroom seat…), employees tell you to talk to the other guys, elite benefits dont always seem to smoothly transfer, and good luck if there is an IROP. At least have partners co-locate in same terminals! I thought a few years ago the alliances would basically become… Read more »
robert.rolwing
Member

if this is true, then why doesnt United, finaly build a perminant new 21rst cntry ,midfield C and D concourse, at Wash-DC-Dulles and extend the concourses at Newark,to consolidat ALL Ua-uax , into the C terminal, and add some gates at Chicago Ohare, so Ua doesnt have to use Intl Termnl 5

would make easier faster connections, save money on paying for many terminals ,and faster turnarounds of the planes also– A WIN WIN FOR ALL

Matt
Guest

United doesn’t have a gate issue @ ORD, its just the international arrivals which are required to go to T5. If anyone should be complaining, it should be AA/BA @ ORD which requires 2 diff terminals for departure. UA/LH/ANA international depart from T1 which accommodates the majority of transit passengers.

Having gone through midfield international arrivals at IAD, I can say that I would have preferred a different carrier to arrive at a real international terminal. Anything is better than UA @ IAD.

MeanMeosh
Guest
One other issue that needs to be addressed concerning the subject of seamless connections is the continued use of remote stands at several European and Middle Eastern airports. Take the “unstoppable” DXB, for instance. If your incoming flight parks at an aerobridge, you can pretty easily make a connection in an hour, especially if it’s from one EK flight to another. If your incoming flight parks at a remote stand, though – all bets are off. Now you’re dealing with a minimum 15-minute bus ride to either the main terminal or transit terminal, a security check, which at DXB can… Read more »
Doug Swalen
Guest

DXB may or may not be “unstoppable” but it mostly hinges on what your connection is. I had an 8 hour EK layover one way and a five hour layover on the way back (with the zig zag bus ferry to T3). Quick connection? Hardly

noahkimmel
Member
I think part of easy connections is about hard layouts. i.e. ATL you can move to/from any gate once you are past security, whereas JFK and ORD that is not the case (though rare for an airline to have split operation). Airports need to have easy flows, close gates, good signange for passengers. I think there is some interesting stuff happening at JFK T5i where Jetblue’s international partners are moving into their terminal. This will allow for those tighter connection times and make those itineraries much more competitive. It was a pain when I did a DL-AF connection at JFK… Read more »
Global Traveler
Member
Having to connect in the USA is a nightmare i leave long connections times between my flights for this but sometimes it is hard as airlines make it hard for you to book those types of flights. I have been in SFO immigration lines for over 3 hours at one time. Which made my 4 hour layover (which i thought was more than enough time) a joke! I wish I had know about the short connection times in Munich 3 days ago before I brought my ticket with a 5 hour layover when i could have had an hour layover… Read more »
Alan Green
Guest

I’m appalled at the queuing system through immigration in SFO. A quick consult with a time and motion expert would yield a large decrease in average queueing time. I am certain that the TSA could find a Berkeley or Stanford math professor who would do it for free because it would benefit the professor personally every time they returned from an overseas conference.

Alan Green
Guest

I’m curious about the effects of airport design on moving luggage of connecting passengers from one flight to the next. I recently transited through LAX – domestic to international, Virgin America to Air New Zealand. Moving myself from one terminal to the next was hard enough, with a web search on mobile phone making up for the lack of helpful signage, but I’m fascinated that my luggage actually made the connection too.

Red
Member

Speaking of connecting I am surprised SFO with UA/ANA/NZ/other star carriers was not mentioned as a good or decent connecting airport with INT being connected past Security to UA’s Concourse at SFO

Tim
Guest

Clearing customs & immigration can be disastrous at SFO. It depends on the time of day, but I’ve personally spent several hours trying to get through, especially prior to having Global Entry.

Doug Swalen
Guest

Not so good if you fly Asiana though. It is still gating on the other side of the airport.

James
Guest

There is a plan for the terminals to be reorganised by carrier rather than international and domestic, although who knows if it’ll go ahead. Also in Sydney news, its second airport was finally, officially announced as Badgery’s Creek today, only about 20 years later than it should have been.

cahilldot
Member

??SFO if going delta then united?? lax if going out of the country need to go to new terminal (used to have to kleave domestic and walk down the street and re-chek into old bradley term.. FRA is nuts and a maze even if flying 1st class.. lufthansa and security loves to grab ur unknown parts of ur body….

cahilldot
Member

forgot Miami transfers yikes……

Adrian Jenkins
Guest
A few comments… Air New Zealand has been in the Star Alliance since inception, but it was in Terminal 2 at Narita for a long time, while most other Star Alliance carriers were in the South Wing of Terminal 1. I once had to make a connection at Narita – UA-NZ, and it involved a terminal change. NZ has moved to Terminal 1 now. I agree that making all passengers clear US Immigration, even if they are immediately in transit to another International Destination is a real pain for us non-Americans. US Immigration queues for non-citizens are almost always long… Read more »
Adrian Jenkins
Guest

AKL’s latest plans are to bring domestic and international terminals together. About time, too, I say. The current domestic terminal is quite same way from international, and is not a very pleasant terminal. Bring on the new terminal, I say.

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