Restoring air connectivity
We report on some of the route development challenges facing Europe’s airports as the industry continues to struggle from the impact of the global pandemic.
Just when you began to think that things were getting better, rising infection levels across Europe in November led a number of countries to impose new COVID restrictions and, in some cases, full and partial lockdowns.
At the time of writing, the impact of these measures on international travel for the fully vaccinated was unknown, but they provided another reminder of just how difficult it is going to be for airports to rebuild their international route networks over the next year to 18 months.
It is generally accepted that domestic and short-haul travel will recover more quickly than long-haul international routes, but what timescale are we realistically looking at before the airlines really begin to ramp up their services again?
What incentives can airports offer the airlines to encourage them to resume services, increase existing frequencies and launch new routes?
And has COVID changed our travel habits forever, particularly for business travel, where many companies appear to have pulled the plug on overseas trips for now due to economic difficulties and the hassle and uncertainty of planning often expensive business trips abroad?
The hugely challenging situation facing Europe’s airports when it comes to their route networks was touched upon in the ‘Restoring air connectivity and reimagining route and network development’ session at ACI Europe’s recent Annual Congress & General Assembly in Geneva.
Moderator, KPI Aviation and Marketing Solutions’ managing director, George Karamanos, opened the session by suggesting that airports might have to completely change their airline marketing strategies to adapt to today’s more challenging environment.
“People are deciding where to travel based on COVID. In fact, the main driver of travel at this point is anything that relates to COVID, so a new approach is necessary,” said Karamanos.
Indeed, he believes that COVID has changed the attitudes and behaviour of travellers to such an extent that it is time to re-prioritise the needs and desires of passengers in what he called “the new travel normal”.
Aviation, he argues, now has to appeal to a new set of passenger personas, the bulk of which will need some convincing to travel again, as KPI research indicates that the ‘Optimistic Traveller’, the kind of passenger the industry wants, only account for around 18% of the total.
In fact the new market, he argues, is now dominated by ‘The Common-Sense Traveller’ (35%) and ‘The Cautious Traveller’ (29%), with ‘The Non-Traveller’ (6%); and ‘The Risk Averse Traveller’ (12%) accounting for the rest.
Going into more specifics about the new passenger personas identified by new KPI research, Karamanos said a statement that best summed up The Common Sense Traveller, would be: “I have returned to air travel but will take necessary precautions during my journey. The number of COVID cases and restrictions at my destination will impact my flight choice.”
For The Cautious Traveller, he said the comment would be: “I will only take a flight, if it is absolutely necessary, taking all precautions required. I will await the easing of restrictions and reduction in cases before I fly more regularly.”
The Optimistic Traveller he defined as: “I have returned to air travel and will travel at similar levels to the pre-COVID era if flights are available regardless of the restrictions in the airport or at the destination.”
He said The Non Traveller would typically say: “I will not return to flying before the pandemic is over, and even then I will be cautious in my travel plans and will be unlikely to travel at the same levels that I did previously.”
And he noted that a statement that would best characterise The Risk Averse Traveller, would be: “I am not willing to return to travel until the air travel restrictions are eased and the number of cases has dropped significantly. Once the medical professionals indicate it is safe to fly, I will return, but at reduced levels to previously.”
None of the panellists – Bordeaux Airport’s senior vice president for business development, Jean-Luc Poiroux; Riga Airport board member Arturs Saveljevs; Vienna International Airport’s vice president for aviation marketing and business development, Belina Neumann; Egis’ development director for airport operations and maintenance, Anthony Martin; and Hermes Airports CEO, Eleni Kaloyirou – doubted Karamanos’ assumption that COVID had changed the future for route development in Europe.
Bordeaux’s Poiroux noted that the airport was sending commercial teams to visit travel agents and companies across the region to promote the airport’s route network and educate and inform people about the latest travel requirements in order to motivate companies and groups of travellers to fly again.
“It is not always obvious to people living in the border region or south western France as to where you can fly to easily and without too many constraints from Bordeaux Airport today,” said Poiroux.
“We feel the desire from the airlines to come back and get aircraft in the air, and this has perhaps led to us becoming a bit more opportunistic in our approach to the airlines in recent weeks and let them know that Bordeaux could be on their map again very quickly.”
He believes that one of the most successful strategic decisions the airport has made with regards to incentivising the airlines to resume services from Bordeaux has been to scrap its higher fee for international flights and charge just a single non-Schengen fee for all services.
Hermes Airports’ Kaloyirou stated that ‘good communication’ with the airlines, often virtually and at least once a week, was arguably the best strategic marketing decision the Cypriot airport operator made during the pandemic, as it ensured that it maintained a constant dialogue with its 70 carriers and was kept up to date on their recovery plans.
The second most important decision, she said, was to establish a government backed incentive scheme that shared the risk of route resumptions with the airlines to encourage them to restart services to either Paphos or Larnaca airports.
“The sheme is based on load factors and us providing marketing and other support to the airlines if they are initially below the level they require to operate the route,” explained Kaloyirou.
Largely as a result of these initiatives, Kaloyirou noted that passenger numbers at Paphos and Larnaca airports are now back to 70% of their pre-COVID levels.
Vienna’s Neumann admitted that since long-haul services have only traditionally accounted for 8% of the traffic at the Austrian gateway, its passenger figures haven’t been hit as hard or for so long as other hubs more depedent on international travel.
However, like everywhere else, Vienna International Airport (VIE) saw its passenger numbers plummet during the worst days of COVID, and in a bid to kick start services it has waived all landing fees since March 2020 as part of its ‘restart programme’.
“This has proved very successful, but I think the most important work we have done over the last 18 months or so has been communicating with our airlines, business partners and travel companies in our catchment area to address passenger concerns and the constantly changing challenges we all faced,” said Neumann.
“What we have found really difficult was the fact that all the tools we normally used for forcasting or calculating business cases for route development didn’t work anymore as everything has changed. We are still adjusting to this, and I think, for us, this means listening a little bit more closely to what the airlines need and the problems they are facing.”
Riga Airport’s Saveljevs admitted that working closely with the Latvian government has been pivotal to easing travel restrictions and rebooting aviation in his country and meant that the airport hadn’t found it necessary to offer any incentives to the airlines to resume services.
While Egis’ Martin said the pandemic had been particularly hard on its smaller airports in France and Belgium, some of which had no traffic at all for several months, meaning that restoring their connectivity wasn’t only important, but vital to ensure their survival.
Its route network efforts at these airports very much revolves around getting local communities and companies on side, although he accepted that COVID had badly hit business travel, conceding that “business traffic had not come back” to 2019 levels, and may take several years to fully recover.
He noted that the downturn in business traffic had been particularly tough on Pau-Pyrénées Airport in the south-west of France, which lost a significant number of its commercial services, including some of the daily routes operated by Air France service to Paris (CDG and ORY).
Fearing that a continuation of the situation could have an adverse long-term impact on demand, Egis decided to take control of the situation and together with the local authorities launched a campaign to win the support of the local business community to support the resumption of Air France flights to the French capital.
It proved successful, in part due to the location in Pau of the global research and development centre of energy giant Total Energies, which Martin says means that thousands of its staff live in the area and frequently need to travel to Paris and beyond.
“We had to be proactive as airlines will not wait for years to secure satisfactory load factors to fill an aircraft and business people won’t wait for years to have a service that meets their needs,” said Martin.
Air France currently operates six daily flights from Pau to Paris (CDG and Orly) and Lyon, and is considering resuming operations to Marseilles in March 2021.
Return of US traffic triggers Heathrow recruitment drive
Anyone in any doubt about the economic and social importance of air travel returning to its pre-COVID levels as soon as possible need look no further than London Heathrow for evidence, as the UK hub is looking to recruit 600 new frontline staff as a direct consequence of the restart of transatlantic travel and easing of international restrictions.
While passenger numbers at Heathrow remain 56% down on pre-pandemic levels, the end the US travel ban is a huge boost for the gateway as the market accounts for 20% of its passenger traffic and 31% of the airport’s cargo tonnage.
Security and engineering jobs will be among the first new frontline roles to be created at Heathrow since the start of the pandemic.
Heathrow’s chief people officer, Paula Stannett, said: “This is an incredible time to start a career in aviation and to be at the forefront of a world-class organisation determined to build back better as we recover from the impacts of the pandemic.
“Many of Heathrow’s security officers have gone on to have long and fulfilling careers in various parts of our airport and the wider aviation sector, so this really is a rewarding opportunity at a pivotal time for our industry.
“We look forward to welcoming our new joiners before the summer, at the beginning of what we are sure will be an enriching time at the UK’s only hub airport.”