How Do Airports Achieve Continuing Success?
Hong Kong International Airport. (Photo: Pacific Rim Construction)
By Christine Loh and Richard Cullen

How Do Airports Achieve Continuing Success?

May. 03, 2019  |     |  0 comments

The Top Ten winners of the annual Skytrax World Airport Awards have recently been announced (see “What Makes the World’s Best Airports Tick?”)

Each of the Top Ten does well because they have fought hard to be the best. They beat out 550 other airports. Being the best was important to them in a hyper-competitive world at a time of shifting geopolitics and geo-economics.

It takes good long-term planning and significant resources to operate a well-oiled airport. It requires coordinating many tasks well. International passengers appreciate arriving at a pleasant and spacious environment, where you can get to immigration easily and where queues are handled efficiently and quickly. Luggage should come quickly, customs should not be a hassle, and transport should be plentiful and easy to navigate. Departing passengers like quick check-in, security and passport controls, and roomy waiting areas with a large variety of food and amusements. Premium passengers want comfortable lounges. Fast and free WiFi is a must. Artificial intelligence will be making its mark shortly in airports that are installing new equipment to make passenger experience even faster and easier.

Six of the Top Ten airports are in East and Southeast Asia, one in the Middle East and three are in Europe. There are none in the United States, where airport experience, especially among the major airports, is known for inefficiencies compared to their counterparts in Asia. Denver (#32) is ranked the best American airport. Other major airports are ranked as follows: San Francisco (#48), Los Angeles (#71) and JFK, New York (#74).

The United States is still the world’s top economy and there is much of interest that the rest of the world wants to see and experience. It remains a principal destination for many international students. While Americans want better travel facilities, putting massive resources into expanding and improving airports has not been a priority. Perhaps there is nothing for America to prove to the world.

Still, the comparatively poor ranking of US airports is related in significant part to widespread under-investment over several decades. A remarkable lesson, from last century, about the crucial importance of maintaining long term, high quality upkeep of all aspects of transport infrastructure is provided by Australia. Both Sydney and Melbourne began building extensive tramway (light rail) transport systems well over 100 years ago. Until about 70 years ago, Sydney had a significantly larger system than that in Melbourne. Unlike in Melbourne, however, maintenance was poor not least during the Depression in the 1930s. The Sydney tram system was argued to be in such bad repair by the 1950s that it was entirely uprooted and replaced by buses. Sydney is currently struggling with cost overruns as it tries to build a single new 13 kilometer light-rail line. The Melbourne tramway system has continued to modernize and expand and today is the world’s largest, ahead of Cologne and Moscow, with a network length of 250 kilometers.

Singapore’s Changi Airport also confirms how an exceptional commitment to upkeep pays off. It outperforms because it continuously invests in infrastructure, service and ambiance. By riding on Singapore “garden state” status, it brings tropical vegetation into the airport in imaginative ways. It also wants to showcase a hi-tech airport to demonstrate its future-forward orientation.

While Singapore is well-located geographically to be the regional air hub in Southeast Asia, it doesn’t forget about potential competition. Although not among the Top Ten, Bangkok’s Suvarnabhumi International Airport (#46) and Kuala Lumpur International Airport (#54) have ambitions and the desire to advance. They are competing with Changi for business.

Changi Airport is also a political symbol of the competence and ability of the small island state of Singapore. It is hard to assess what this intangible accolade is worth but whenever people talk about air travel and airports, they remember Singapore has the best airport. Thus, the airport projects national prestige.

IATA feels international airports are best left as publicly-controlled service providers but made subject to stringent regulation. Privatization is seen as an “unnecessary evil”.

Passengers often compare Changi Airport and Hong Kong International Airport (#5). Being among the best is important to Hong Kong because it went through a political transition from British to Chinese rule in 1997. It must show that its commercial mojo is strong and high passenger throughput at the airport is seen as a sign of vitality. It is spending billions to build a third runway and to upgrade facilities.

Shenzhen (#65) and Guangzhou (#39) are Hong Kong’s most threatening competition, and Guangzhou was ranked by Skytrax as the most improved airport in China. With a large and growing number of travelers from South China, passengers can fly out from those airports instead. Hong Kong has to fight hard to make passengers choose to transit through its airport,  through ensuring it has many flight connections to the world, high efficiency and good overall experience.

For both Singapore and Hong Kong, regional passengers are vital. They are destinations where travelers can both conduct business and entertain themselves and their families. Apart from having efficient airports, they must ensure the city itself offers a good variety of visitor-activities.

Hong Kong is now part of the national Greater Bay Area development plan, which covers the most economically vibrant and well-off counties in Guangdong Province and Macao with a total population of over 65 million people, similar to South Korea, and a GDP of USD 1.5 trillion. This plan calls for regional collaboration to find win-win synergies. It will be interesting to see if the relevant authorities can turn competition into regional collaboration and how that might benefit the airports there.

Seoul’s Incheon Airport (#3) is ranked the best world’s transit airport, followed by Changi and Hong Kong. This is important because East Asian passengers can choose to transit in Seoul to capture good airfares across the Pacific and spend time in hip-Korea for shopping and music. Incheon Airport is using traditional crafts to occupy departure passengers that is proving to be a hit.

Japan stands apart as a large and advance economy in Asia with many airports and three among the Top Ten – Tokyo’s Haneda Airport (#2) is also voted Asia’s best domestic airport; Nagoya Airport is the world’s best regional airport (#6), and Tokyo’s Narita Airport (#9) distinguishes itself by having a running track for exercise buffs. Japan has always been an exceptional destination for travelers with a reputation for being safe and super clean. It has a large variety of destinations and unique cultural experiences, which range from the ancient to the ultra-modern.

The other four Top Ten airports are Doha in Qatar (#4),Munich (#7), London Heathrow (#8) and Zurich (#10). Doha aims to be a luxury airport, and together with Qatar Airways, the airport wants to capture transit passengers flying from Asia to Europe via Doha. Flights are well-priced and transit time made enjoyable.

Munich is the second largest airport in Germany and the seventh busiest in Europe. It is the hub for Lufthansa. Zurich is the hub for Swiss International Air Lines. Both cities are well-organized and efficient to get in and out of. London Heathrow is Britain’s biggest airport and the second busiest airport in the world in terms of passenger traffic. It has been a longstanding transit point for passengers coming from all over the world to change planes to Europe. London is of course also a favorite destination for business and pleasure. Many countries have links to Britain through being former colonies, including Singapore and Hong Kong. Time will tell how Brexit might change aviation traffic for Heathrow and travel to Britain as a whole.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA), the trade association of world airlines has strongly criticized the privatization of airports. IATA feels international airports are best left as publicly-controlled service providers but made subject to stringent regulation. Privatization is seen as an “unnecessary evil”.

All of the airports on Skytrax Top 10 list for 2019 are commercially very well run. Seven out of the 10, though, are either publicly owned or subject to ultimate public control. The Skytrax results tell us clearly that high competence combined with a strong competitive approach are “must have” factors to secure success. Privatization, however, is not. Efficient, well regulated public control of the sort found in East and Southeast Asia may well provide the best framework to achieve long-term success.

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