Not so long ago, the idea of airport marketing may well have sounded like a contradiction in terms to the jaded airline route planner. Airport operators looked more like immovable institutions, to be worked around rather than with.

But if airports were late to the art of marketing, then they have since been making up for lost time. Witness the Routes event held in London this September. Close to 200 airport business managers, from Baltimore to Bahrain were there, ready to win over new airline business with the promise of thriving catchment areas, radical expansion schemes and the occasional financial incentive.

Watching the dialogue unfold, it was hard to believe that when Routes launched four years ago the event still seemed like a daring experiment rather than a surefire business proposition. It first came to life in Cannes in 1994 as a joint venture between Airline Business and Airport Marketing & Strategy (ASM), a UK-based consultancy, itself born out of a determination to improve the airport dialogue with carriers. Avoiding the usual conference format, Routes centres around a series of short, sharp business meetings. Each airport bids for sessions with eight key airlines and informally gets the chance to see more.

Around 70 delegates turned up for the launch in Cannes and since then neither Routes nor the airport marketeers have looked back. By the time it reached London this year, following events in Dubai and Oslo, overall attendance was coming close to 400.

"It is only a short time since airlines and airports started talking together," remarks ASM president Sir Gilbert Thompson, himself an early champion of airport marketing as former chief executive of Manchester Airport. Time was, he adds, when airports saw themselves as "feudal landlords", paying homage to no-one, least of their tied tenants, the airlines.

Now that the dialogue has begun, the airlines too have much to gain, believes Thompson. He points out that airports often have links to local communities and influence with hometown politicians that the airlines could do well to borrow.

There is also a new willingness by airports to share risk on new routes, ranging from joint advertising and analysis, through to reduced landing fees and even hard cash.

Airline support

Phil Roberts, of US consultants Roberts, Roach & Associates, gives the example of an estimated fee of $3 million arranged by one US resort to underwrite a direct long-haul service during the peak season. Another mid-West airport, looking for jet services, enticed in a low-cost carrier with the guarantee that profitable load-factor targets would be met. If not, the airline would get $90 for each passenger below the threshold. The airport had done its homework, the local business community was on board and the route was profitable without subsidy .

But it is not only the secondary airports that are hungry for business. Big US hubs like Atlanta Hartsfield, Dallas/Fort Worth and New York Kennedy were all in London for talks with international carriers.

Hartsfield, still glowing from first half figures that show it is now the world's busiest airport, is pushing hard for its next phase of growth. The latest development masterplan, complete with a new full fifth runway, should take Hartsfield's capacity up to an annual throughput of 123 million passengers by 2005 if approvals go through, says Camilo Buendia, passenger route development manager. Even that, he adds is a conservative estimate as Hartsfield continues to beat its own growth projections, topping 70 million passengers this year.

Other heartland airports too are challenging for the status of the USA's next international gateway. Denver International pulled off a coup earlier this year with the launch of a British Airways service out of London. Denver's air service development manager Lesley Madsen, believes that BA's presence now marks the start of Denver's transition from charter destination to scheduled gateway.

Colorado's ski slopes apart, Denver has a captive regional catchment area of close to 3 million passengers and the surrounding states bring the population to above says Madsen. The BA business case was based on a London-Denver origin and destination (O&D)traffic of around 250,000 passengers a year, with continental Europe, led by Germany and France, adding twice that number again. Whether BA's direct services will now spur other European majors to respond, remains to be seen. "What damage BA does to them will show within the next 12 months," says Madsen.

And the rash of transatlantic open skies agreements, soon to include a new US-UK air bilateral, is holding out the prospect of new airline competitors. British Midland is working up plans to return to North America if open skies emerge. Elsewhere in Europe, long-haul start-ups like Belgium's CityBird and Geneva's Swiss World have already emerged.

European airports too are angling to benefit. London Luton, with plans in hand to take the airport up to 10 million passengers a year, has ambitions to capture new scheduled transatlantic services to complement its existing fare of long-haul charter operations and the low-cost regional business of easyJet and Debonair.

Luton's arch rival London Stansted too has some ambitious growth plans. With Heathrow and Gatwick largely full, the BAA group is keen to see its third London hub take up some of the growth. Stansted is already headed for 7 million passenger this year and within a decade that should more than double, says BAA's corporate affairs director, Des Wilson. Ultimately, there is no reason why the airport could not fulfil a long-term potential to stand alongside Gatwick with 40 million passengers a year, he says.

The changing tides of European airline strategy are forcing airports elsewhere to respond to new opportunities and threats. The emergence of Milan Malpensa in northern Italy has set sharpened the focus at Munich and Rome. Munich marketing manager Ross Crichton points out that the airport has good relationships with regionals feeding in traffic from northern Italy's local airports. For example, some 80% of the traffic brought in by Trieste-based Air Dolomiti is for transfer.

European strategies

Geneva is another city in search of feed, following Swissair's decision two years ago to transfer the majority of its intercontinental flights to the main Zurich hub. Other European long-haul carriers have been quick to take the opportunity to feed their own hubs, says Yves-Daniel Viredaz, Geneva's marketing-communication head. "From the moment that Swissair pulled out the long-haul flights, all the major carriers have increased frequencies to their major hubs," he says.

Start-up Swiss World has since taken up the challenge on the north Atlantic but Geneva is keen to attract additional long-haul direct. But Viredaz admits that there is a realisation that building a regional feeder network may have to come first before netting a major airline. Crossair and growing Air Engiadina are possibilities.

The encouraging news is that good marketing can help, as airports like Shannon have proved. Despite the end of of the compulsory Aer Lingus stop-over, Shannon has been out marketing with a vengeance - a fact recognised at Routes with an award for best business case in the Airport Marketing Awards. It seems to be justified. Only days later, Shannon announced not only that it had been selected by Royal Jordanian as its new European hub, but that Virgin Express is to base a new subsidiary there, away from high-cost Belgium.

It is tempting to wonder whether such deals would have been signed in the days when airports saw themselves largely as destinations, and marketing was something to do with shops.

Source: Airline Business