World’s best airports: What do travellers really want?

Zurich Airport. Photo courtesy Alamy.

Zurich Airport. Photo courtesy Alamy.

Conde Nast’s latest list of the world’s best airports by its readers throws up familiar names: 1. Changi Airport (Singapore) 2. Dubai International 3. Hong Kong International 4. Ben Gurion Airport (Tel Aviv) 5. Seoul Incheon (Korea) 6. Tokyo-Haneda (Japan) 7. Hamad International (Doha) 8. Abu Dhabi International 9. Zurich International 10. Vancouver International.

Two key factors emerge as top considerations in the voting: easy access and VIP lounges.

Changi, Ben Gurion, Haneda and Vancouver top for easy access. Changi is supported by an army of taxis and the subway train. Vancouver is also directly linked by the subway to the city centre. Ben Gurion is only 9 miles from downtown Tel Aviv. Compared to Narita, Haneda is much nearer to the city.

The other six airports in the list top for VIP lounges – notably First Class and Business Class of the home airlines. All three Gulf airports stand out for their lounges. Emirates boasts direct boarding from the lounges. Besides Qatar Airways’ lavish lounges for premium passengers at Hamad, there are Quiet Rooms for all classes of travellers. So too at Abu Dhabi, besides Etihad Airways’ exclusive lounges, there are 24 Finnish-designed GoSleep pods.

What does the survey tell us about what air travellers really want of an airport?

It really depends on whether you are an arriving/departing passenger or a transit or connecting passenger with time to spare between flights.

Easy access is critical if you have to head to town or from town.

Comfort is important if you have to spend time waiting inside the sterile area. The Conde Nast report may however be too niche on the second aspect in its skewed assessment of VIP lounges which are only available to premium passengers. Most home airlines impress with lavish facilities for this class of customers. The majority of the travellers will have to make do with the common space – not only for resting but also for F&B, retail outlets and other services that airports such as Changi and Hong Kong thrive on. It is the halo effect of marketing prestige.

Conde Nast’s latest list of the world’s best airports by its readers throws up familiar names: 1. Changi Airport (Singapore) 2. Dubai International 3. Hong Kong International 4. Ben Gurion Airport (Tel Aviv) 5. Seoul Incheon (Korea) 6. Tokyo-Haneda (Japan) 7. Hamad International (Doha) 8. Abu Dhabi International 9. Zurich International 10. Vancouver International.

Two key factors emerge as top considerations in the voting: easy access and VIP lounges.

Changi, Ben Gurion, Haneda and Vancouver top for easy access. Changi is supported by an army of taxis and the subway train. Vancouver is also directly linked by the subway to the city centre. Ben Gurion is only 9 miles from downtown Tel Aviv. Compared to Narita, Haneda is much nearer to the city.

The other six airports in the list top for VIP lounges – notably First Class and Business Class of the home airlines. All three Gulf airports stand out for their lounges. Emirates boasts direct boarding from the lounges. Besides Qatar Airways’ lavish lounges for premium passengers at Hamad, there are Quiet Rooms for all classes of travellers. So too at Abu Dhabi, besides Etihad Airways’ exclusive lounges, there are 24 Finnish-designed GoSleep pods.

What does the survey tell us about what air travellers really want of an airport?

It really depends on whether you are an arriving/departing passenger or a transit or connecting passenger with time to spare between flights.

Easy access is critical if you have to head to town or from town.

Comfort is important if you have to spend time waiting inside the sterile area. The Conde Nast report may however be too niche on the second aspect in its skewed assessment of VIP lounges which are only available to premium passengers. Most home airlines impress with lavish facilities for this class of customers. The majority of the travellers will have to make do with the common space – not only for resting but also for F&B, retail outlets and other services that airports such as Changi and Hong Kong thrive on. It is the halo effect of marketing prestige.

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Why Vancouver International is North America’s best airport

This interview with Mr Craig Richmond,CEO & President, Vancouver Airport Authority, was first published in Aspire Aviation.

Courtesy Vancouver Airport Authority

Courtesy Vancouver Airport Authority

IT is easy to see why Vancouver International Airport (YVR) is North America’s best airport. Neatly laid out, aesthetically pleasant, comfortable and customer friendly. Constant upgrading and an innovative approach to aviation issues have marked it out as one among the most progressive airports in the world. YVR recently upgraded and expanded its Domestic Terminal, which is part of a C$1.8 billion (US$1.4 billion) gateway strategy to keep the airport competitive.

For many travellers, YVR is also a delightful art showpiece that exudes a uniquely Canadian character and flavour. The airport’s Thematic Master Plan sets the tone for all future development, celebrating the natural beauty and cultural heritage of its home province of British Columb

Q:  Congratulations on YVR’s impressive ranking as North America’s best airport for five years running in the Skytrax survey. What makes YVR significantly different from other airports in the region? And how did you sustain the effort to consistently stay at the top?

Richmond: Thank you, it is a real honour for us to be named best airport in North America for five years in a row: hopefully it will be six years soon! This award is particularly meaningful for us because over 12 million passengers voted, totally unsolicited and based on a wide variety of factors which include customer service, airport efficiency, shopping and dining and so much more.

First, we never let last year’s win make us complacent. We have a continuous commitment to safe and efficient airport operations, creating a compelling sense of place and caring for every customer. YVR is reinventing itself as an airport hub of the future. With 20 million passengers per year in our sights, we are redefining innovation, sustainability and customer service.

Courtesy Vancouver Airport Authority

Courtesy Vancouver Airport Authority

Q:  YVR has positioned itself as a hub gateway to North America. You have been encouraging carriers from China in particular to fly here. What’s the rationale behind this promotion and how successful have you been thus far?

Richmond: Asia is one of the strongest aviation markets in the world and it’s going to get even bigger. However, we are still very bullish on North America and Europe and want to see connections between Asia and South America. By establishing YVR as a hub to the Asia-Pacific, we’re helping to create jobs for British Columbians. More than 24,000 people come to work at YVR every day and every new daily, international service adds an additional 150-200 direct jobs. For every direct job created by a new service, there are 2.5 more direct and induced jobs. It always comes back to our growth = more jobs for BC.

Right now, YVR is the second busiest airport in Canada with the most connections to Asia in Canada and the second most in North America. We are in a competitive business so we must continue to seek out more new connections in order to be the preferred hub between Asia and the Americas.

Q:  How do you address the concerns of Air Canada as the national flag carrier about the competition posed by those airlines operating more flights into YVR?

Richmond: We have a strong partnership with Air Canada; they provide a tremendously high quality product for our passengers and we love working with them. They were voted North America’s top airline by Skytrax again this year and we continue to work with them to help them deliver and grow their business.

For example, the Air Canada rouge product has been very successful since its launch at YVR in 2014. Rouge offers services to some of our key holiday markets including LA, Las Vegas and San Francisco. In addition they introduced new routes to Palm Springs and Phoenix in December and are about to launch service to Osaka in May (I will be on that inaugural flight) which is a brand new destination for YVR.

Q: Some travellers are apparently going to neighbouring airports south of the border for flying within the United States because of cheaper airfare and airport charges. Is this a concern to YVR or just small beer? If so, what has been done to retain their loyalty?

Richmond: While we would like everyone in BC to fly from YVR (and other BC airports), we realize that US airports operate under a different model which means we can’t always compete on price. We do work very hard to keep fees as low as we can wherever possible, principally through growing our non-aeronautical revenue. The fact is, Canadian airports pay rent, U.S. airports don’t. Canadian airports are not funded or supported by government, U.S. airports are.

The price difference between U.S. and Canadian flights to the same destination isn’t always substantial and it’s important that travellers consider other factors including the hassle of crossing a border, their time and parking. As we continue to create a connecting hub between Asia and the Americas, we will offer more destination options and continue to deliver a remarkable customer experience.

Q: Innovation is often said to be the key to success. I’m personally impressed by your cellphone parking area to relieve congestion at the terminal yet have the interest of the customer at heart. What else can we expect in the near future that will continue to mark YVR as a progressive airport and the best in the region?

Richmond: Thanks for recognizing this. Innovation is one of our core values. YVR has consistently been at the forefront of technological advances that have helped dictate the overall design of airports to ensure efficiency in operations, from common use check-in facilities to FOD radar. A recent example from our Innovative Travel Solutions team is the BorderXpress Automated Passport Control kiosks. Developed at YVR, they are currently being used in 20 airports across Canada, the United States and the Caribbean and have helped millions of passengers through the US and Canadian border processes.

What’s next? We view our relationship with technology as that of an enabler; applying technology to a product, service or business concept creates value by making that process better, easier or cheaper for our customers, partners and community. Our objective is to be a perceptive airport in terms of the processing of passengers, bags, planes and vehicles – which relates to the ongoing design of our terminals in order to be more effective. Being perceptive means we can learn more from our systems and data. Right now we are really rethinking the passenger check-in process – watch this space!

In order to keep YVR one of the best airports in the world in a highly competitive environment, we are working to make the travel process easier and quicker to attract new airlines and meet the demands of our growing customer base. The A-B Connector, the new addition to our Domestic Terminal, provides a seamless and efficient connection for passengers and their bags, so you could arrive from Seoul and connect to a domestic gate en route to Prince George, Calgary or Toronto in less than an hour.

Partnerships are integral to growing Canadian airports. We are currently working with the federal government on implementing transit without visa. This is a program whereby International travellers can transit through YVR without obtaining a Canadian visa. This would be a game changer for YVR and other major airports in Canada and will attract more passengers and carriers that currently couldn’t serve this market using only Vancouver based originating and departing passengers. This is key for us to continue to grow as a global hub and we are hopeful that this will be announced this year.

Brilliant idea: Vancouver Airport’s “Cell Phone Waiting Area”

PrintTO cope with increased kerbside passenger pick-up at its terminal buildings and to prevent the pile up of traffic that causes congestion and becomes untidy, the Vancouver Airport has introduced a “cell phone waiting area” where you can park 30 minutes free not far down the road heading towards the terminal buildings.

When your passenger is ready to be picked up, he or she calls you on the cell to signal you to move to the designated pick-up point.

A brilliant idea if you cannot afford to be as generous as some airports like Singapore Changi Airport which gives a grace of 15 minutes free parking at it main terminal car parks. Vancouver Airport which charges C$8 (US$7.46) is one of the most expensive airports for parking at the main terminal parking. Kudos all the same to Vancouver Airport for thinking outside the box!
Cellphonemap
Courtesy Vancouver Airport Authority

A hub airport needs a strong home-base carrier – but does it really?

Courtesy Cathay Pacific

Courtesy Cathay Pacific

INCOMING Cathay Pacific Chief Operating Officer Rupert Hogg who will be taking up his new position in March loses no time in marking his presence as one with a voice and views to be heard. At a recent meeting in Vancouver, Canada with officials from Vancouver International Airport (VIA), he offered a piece of advice that might not sit too well with his host but certainly something that Air Canada in its battle to check VIA’s enthusiasm to open its doors to foreign carriers willy-nilly might use to support its case.

Mr Hogg emphasized the need of a strong home-base airline to anchor an airport’s hub operations. He said: “Only a home-base carrier has the wherewithal to create the banks of incoming flights and make them connect to the banks of outgoing flights.”

There is much truth in Mr Hogg’s statement. No one, including Mr Hogg, can resist citing the opposing fate of Dubai and Bahrain as an example. Both airports are quite on par in terms of an advantageous geographical location and the capability to provide good facilities, but Bahrain today is unable to achieve the kind of success that Dubai is enjoying because it lacks a strong home-base carrier like Dubai’s Emirates Airlines. Gulf Air, once the leading airline of the Middle East and which was expanding rapidly in the ‘80s and becoming the first airline from the region to fly to Australia, has succumbed to the competition posed largely by rival Emirates and by other younger airlines such as Etihad Airways (Abu Dhabi) and Qatar Airways (Doha). Gulf Air has since ceased operations to major airports such as Singapore, Hong Kong and Sydney. So too spelt the decline of Bahrain as a major Middle East hub.

There is more to the story of the decline of Bahrain, which did enjoy brisk business in its early days when Dubai and Emirates were relatively little known; it became badly affected when new jets plying the kangaroo and east-west routes no longer needed a technical stop in a city that offered little else and their operators preferred airports in Asian cities such as Bangkok and Singapore. Bangkok offered the shortest route from Sydney to European cities and the additional attraction as a touristy stopover, and Singapore topped the efficiency table for best connectivity and the lowest probability of a costly disruption.

Courtesy Cathay Pacific

Courtesy Cathay Pacific

But Mr Hogg’s advice to VIA, as it appeared to be intended, might be incidental. He was actually talking about Cathay Pacific and Hong Kong International Airport (HKIA), and their symbiotic relationship. Mr Hogg cited the synonymous growth of both Cathay and HKIA in support of his argument. Similarly, as another example, we can look at the relationship between Singapore Airlines (SIA) and Singapore Changi Airport. In fact, in many of the recent surveys such as those conducted by Skytrax, the awards for the best airline and for the best airport seem to go hand-in-hand: SIA/Changi, Cathay/HKIA, Asiana/Incheon and Emirates/Dubai amongst them. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine London Heathrow without British Airways, Frankfurt without Lufthansa, Sydney without Qantas, Tokyo Narita without Japan Airlines or All Nippon Airways, and major American hubs without the spoke patterns of resident American airlines.

Mr Hogg’s argument may therefore come across as being self-serving in the interest of Cathay, which has protested Qantas setting up Jetstar Hong Kong jointly with China Eastern Airlines and a local company. In that respect, his view is one-sided, to think that it is the airline that grows the airport (and not the other way round) although one definitely cannot deny the airline’s contribution to an airport’s success. The question is: Does an airport similarly contribute to the success of its home-base airline (or for that matter a visiting airline)? More specifically, how much of Cathay’s success can be attributed to HKIA’s positioning (and for the sake of comparison that of SIA to Changi’s)?

Mr Hogg said: “As you can see in the case of Dubai, you need geographical location, but if you don’t have a successful home-base carrier, you have nothing,”

Those were strong words, which led us to the next question: Can an airport and its home-base airline succeed independently or one without the other?

While geography is not everything, it cannot be denied that it is an important factor. Mr Hogg would not refute that, as he did say that airports and airlines must leverage their geographical advantages. But as the world shrinks with technological advances, this importance can shift, as when Bahrain lost its geographical advantage with the introduction of modern jets that allows airlines to overfly it. In the same way, Mr Hogg did not think that SIA poses a threat to Cathay in the North American market. He reasoned: “If you look at the Great Circle Route, Hong Kong is directly on the route. The reality is, with current technology, Singapore is too far south to effectively serve North America. If you are travelling to India, you are not going to go all the way south, then come back up north to Delhi.”

Changi has often been cited for its geographical advantage over its regional rivals, and no doubt this advantage has contributed to SIA’s success. But the lesson of Bahrain continues to hold true, in yet another example when Qantas decided to move its hub for European flights from Changi to Dubai. So Mr Hogg was right here to think that geography is not everything but a starter’s advantage. Qantas’ exit from Changi has more to do with a shift in marketing strategy. So in the same way, hypothetically, can SIA do a Qantas on Cathay in the case of Indian traffic, even though logically the shorter flight distance favours Hong Kong but not that much more considering the close proximity of HKIA and Changi to each other?

Indeed, Cathay should be grateful for HKIA’s growing popularity as an Asian gateway, advantaged by its location at the doorstep of the huge Chinese market. That, while not denying Cathay’s contribution, Mr Hogg might accede, has to do with geography too.

We have come round a full circle to recognizing that Mr Hogg’s view cannot be viewed as the definitive scenario of things to come. At best, it was pre-emptive. In spite of the setback caused by the Qantas rerouting of its kangaroo runs, Changi continues to register higher passenger volumes. In 2013, it handled a record 53.7 million passengers, an increase of 5.0% attributed to growth in regional travel, fuelled particularly by the burgeoning budget business. As a hub airport, it is confronted by growth issues of the airport per se vis-à-vis the interest of its home-base carrier. So it is with HKIA and VIA. Changi boasts an open skies policy that may intensify the competition for SIA. HKIA will face the pressure of allowing more airlines to call at its port in view of its proximity to the growing market of the Chinese hinterland and its promotion as an alternative Asian gateway, but this has disturbed Cathay somewhat. VIA sees its future in connecting with more Asian carriers across the Pacific, positioning itself as the western gateway to the rest of North America, the initiative meeting with objection from Air Canada. How then will the airlines figure in their growth plans?

Although it was in Vancouver that Mr Hogg spoke, his message to HKIA on Cathay’s position is clear. His view was hardly a new one, but it was a timely reminder of how as the competition among hub airports and that among airlines begin to move divergently, the concerned parties may increasingly lock horns over whose interests are more important.

Vancouver Airport’s priority is Asian market

Courtesy The Province

Announcing his planned retirement next year, Vancouver International Airport (YVR) CEO Larry Berg can be proud of the Canadian airport being rated as one of the best in the continent. However, in light of concerns that the airport may be losing traffic to nearby airports across the border, such as Bellingham and Seattle, which offer cheaper flights (See Canadian airports lose five million passengers annually to US border competitors, Oct 5, 2012), Mr berg is not ruffled. “The door swings both ways,” he said.

In his opinion, YVR’s focus must be: “Keep costs low, services high, and market to Asian customers.”

Granting that all airports will want to keep their costs low and maintain high service standards, it is clear where YVR’s priorities lie. And by Asia, Mr Berg was thinking topmost about China. YVR and other government officials have been courting the Chinese to look to Canada, and to use Vancouver as the western gateway to the North America. Canada’s agreement with China to give Chinese residents “preferred destination status” has helped promote leisure travel to Canada.  In 1992, there were 17 weekly flights between Vancouver and Chinese ports; this has increased to 61.

Other Asian destinations do not matter as much.

For YVR, the loss of traffic to US border airports is a small price to pay since these passengers are likely to travel short-haul across the United States when it can redirect its resources to attract more international traffic. YVR’s edge will be to provide the connections, convenience and facilities that its competitors do not offer. That, Mr Berg is hopeful, may result in more Americans choosing to travel to Asia via Vancouver.

Canadian airports lose 5 million passengers annually to US border competitors

ACCORDING to a report by the Conference Board of Canada, a not-for-profit research organization, as many as five million Canadians go south of the border by land every year to take advantage of cheaper airfares in the United States, especially when flying within the U.S. The study made specific references to the near-border cities of Vancouver (Vancouver International Airport), Toronto (Pearson International Airport) and Montreal (Montreal-Trudeau International Airport), losing passengers who stand to save some 30 per cent in fares. The pull is even stronger with the Canadian dollar strengthening against its US counterpart.

This is not a new issue for the Canadian government, with federal Finance Minister Jim Flaherty expressing the concern of Ottawa and making it known that Transport Minister Denis Lebell “has been working on a constitutional project with the airlines, with the airport authorities in Canada to try to see what we can accomplish.”

Are American airlines more efficient and customer-service orientated than Canadian airlines? Perhaps if you are flying within the US, you have the advantage of frequencies and better connections. Do not forget that Air Canada has been consistently voted the best airline in North America. It is really all a matter of cost. The Conference Board says fees and taxes constitute about 40 per cent of the cost of an airline ticket in Canada.

So, is the Canadian government prepared to collect less in revenue and implement a cutback in surcharges? Short-term pain, but long-term gain, opined the Conference Board. How can it ensure that the resulting benefits are passed down to the passengers? Are airlines and airports themselves committed to keeping the costs competitive for air travellers? Five million may be a comparatively small figure for now, considering that the combined throughput of Canada’s busiest three airports is more than 64 million in 2011 (Toronto 33.4 million, Vancouver 17.0 million, and Montreal 13.7 million). The risk is how an unchecked exodus can hamper the growth of these hub airports.

Sichuan Airlines lands in Vancouver: The Chinese are coming to Canada!

Sichuan Airlines became the fourth Chinese carrier to operate scheduled flights between China and Canada when it landed its inaugural Chengdu-Vancouver flight at the Vancouver International Airport (YVR) on June 22. From then on, it is scheduled to be three times weekly.

The other three Chinese carriers that make scheduled calls at YVR are Air China, China Eastern Airlines and China Southern Airlines.

The Canadians have long been courting the Chinese at the national level, exploring opportunities not just in the field of aviation but also in the wider economic context covering other industries. It is only to be expected that increased trade between the two countries will trigger increased travel as well as the demand for more cargo capacity and flights.

Vancouver Airport Authority (VAA) is wasting no time to position VIA on the Canadian west coast as the gateway to not only Canada but also North America. It is optimistic that passenger traffic from China to Canada will increase considering China’s population of 1.33 people and the growing class of the wealthy, and as China relaxes the rules for Chinese to travel overseas and Canada makes it easier for them to obtain visas to visit.

There is already a healthy trend as according to the British Columbia Ministry of Jobs, Tourism and Innovation, Chinese arrivals increased by 24.9 per cent to 25,598 in Q1 of 2012.

Like any other airport, VAA is keen on enticing more airlines to YVR and sees Chinese carriers as contributing to that growth. According to VAA president and CEO Larry Berg, there are 61 weekly flights between Vancouver and China (including Hong Kong). He said: “That’s probably about the most of any airport in North America.”

Yet there seems to be an implicit fear of YVR’s isolation because of its geographical far-northwest location. As the region grows economically and attracts more tourists, there is also the fear of loss of traffic to competing airports in the region.

Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, which positions itself as America’s gateway to the Pacific northwest, is probably YVR’s closest rival although Chinese carriers have yet to make scheduled calls there. Located just south of the US-Canadian border, it is only a hop away.

However, YVR is also concerned with intra-competition as it keeps a close eye on growing airports in neighbouring provinces, such as Calgary International Airport.