Commercial aviation has been slowly re-inventing itself
since deregulation began in the USA in 1978, and a little later America began
exporting what it called open skies agreements – a kind of buddy-buddy
liberalisation rendered harmless by the straitjacket of a bilateral treaty .
Things have moved on, but not far, and not throughout the
industry. As the airlines try to accelerate, airports apply the brakes. Not
intentionally, but by default.
Almost without exception they have not carried out the
radical reappraisal of their operations that has led, in the airborne world, to
the low cost carrier phenomenon.
The most obvious evidence of this is the success of the operating
philosophy of that most radical of LCCs Ryanair. Its CEO Michael O’Leary doesn’t
use airports, he uses backwaters nobody else wanted, and he has made this
unlikely model work well. An arriving Ryanair 737-800 is treated like an F1 car
making a pit stop, the entire resources of “Sleepy Hollow Airports Group”
descending on the aircraft and turning it around in minutes. The aluminium is airborne again and earning -
as it should be – in the minimum time.
Busier airports have, with few exceptions, rested on their
laurels. They are immovable parts of the natural infrastructure and they know
business will keep coming as long as they provide a runway. They have the
airlines over a barrel.
But change is in the pipeline, and as so often happens it’s
a change in the users’ perspective that is bringing it about.
The expression “gate-to-gate”, until recently, was used to
describe a typical airline operational flight cycle, although it conveniently excluded
the entire pit-stop and passenger-processing part of the equation as if it were
irrelevant. The “now” expression used to describe the airline’s operating
environment is “cruise-to-cruise”. This involves the airports completely, and
puts their entire operation under a merciless microscope for the first time.
Can airports, especially capacity-constrained ones, step up
to the mark?
The CEO of UK air navigation service provider NATS, Richard
Deakin, has his own perspective on this: “Airports are best at retail and
managing passengers. They should leave the operations to us.” Well, if the
airports can’t learn how to keep the flow going and the aluminium in the air,
it’s true. They should defer to those whose business is flow management.
Even better, they could join the industry they serve instead
of thinking like islands, and do it themselves.