Hubs are increasingly trying to provide business-travelling frequent flyers with the services they demand
By JEFF MILLS
If you want a snapshot of the kind of passengers who use London’s small but well-located City airport, you need only look at a couple of its retail outlets. The bookstore in the departures area apparently sells more business and management-related titles than any other in the chain while, right across from it, the top-end jewelry store does a roaring trade in expensive pieces.
This is music to the ears of the airport’s chief commercial officer, Matthew Hall. A big part of his job is ensuring London City Airport provides the kind of service expected by its lucrative prime customers—those with business in and around the City of London who need to travel to and from other European business destinations on a regular basis. In other words, his brief is to second-guess highly experienced and often highly critical frequent travelers.
This summer it will be possible to fly from London City Airport to 41 different destinations, Mr. Hall says. "Last year, 3 million passengers used the airport. This year we expect to cater for 3.2 million and the majority, around 65% of them, are business travelers."
"We are constantly monitoring our customers and asking them what they want from an airport such as this," he says. "As a result we provide them with business tools such as free Wi-Fi for everyone and we are very careful about how we select the catering and retail outlets we work with."
Facilities that allow you to get down to business before you fly are increasingly important for frequent travelers, which is why many European airports now offer lounges on a pay-as-you-go basis.
But it is not only smaller airports that are striving to do more for their business passengers: some of the larger gateways, such as London’s Gatwick, see it as a priority, too.
"Since Gatwick changed ownership in December 2009 we have looked to compete with other airports to secure a greater share of the business travel market, increase the proportion of business travelers who use Gatwick and rival Heathrow in attracting airlines that serve the U.K.’s key trading routes," says Gatwick airport spokeswoman Sarah Baranowski.
"We are in the middle of a £1.2 billion investment program to transform the airport and…one of our priorities has been to introduce a differentiated product for the premium/first or business class traveler," she says.
For business travelers, says Ms. Baranowski of Gatwick Airport, "time is precious. They don’t tend to build time into their travel for airport shopping, for example. They want a fast and convenient experience through the airport. To that end we have introduced premium parking that ensures check-in is within easy walking distance; introduced premium security areas that look and feel more like VIP lounges and introduced designated seating areas in the departure lounges that have the facilities to enable passengers to work on their laptops before they board their flights."
Facilities that allow you to get down to business before you fly are increasingly important for frequent travelers, which is why many European airports now offer lounges on a pay-as-you-go basis, without the need to be a member of an airline frequent-flyer program.
At Gatwick, for example, "those not flying in business or first class can pay to use the No. 1 traveler lounges, which provide business facilities and a pleasant environment to enjoy downtime before a flight," Ms Baranowski says.
"Because it often takes so long to get from my office to [Amsterdam’s] Schiphol Airport, I go straight there in the morning instead of to the office if I am flying that day," says Rotterdam-based property company Martina Voermans.
"Because I have a bank account with the company I am able to use ABN AMRO’s Preferred Banking Lounge at the airport, where I can meet business associates if I choose to and I can make use of the free internet.
"I find it very stress-free knowing that I have already checked in. It allows me to get down to work right up until it’s time to board the plane. Though you do have to be careful not to become so engrossed that you risk missing the flight. That almost happened to me once."
Many frequent travelers say the best-designed airports are the smallest, providing the essentials without wasting time on what many consider unnecessary frills.
"Working in Canary Wharf and traveling to a number of European business cities and ports at least three times a week, I have to say London City Airport suits me very well," says Julia Pearce, a senior executive in shipping finance. "Because there’s only a 20-minute minimum check-in time for flights, I can do the journey from my desk to the plane in well under an hour. You don’t have to walk for miles past dozens of shops selling things you don’t want to buy. And you can’t say that about many airports," she says.
Though many of the world’s most modern airports have been designed by top international architects and designers, some frequent fliers complain that many are simply shopping malls with planes, with little thought given to business customers.
"I have no concern for shopping or facilities outside the airline lounge," says James Mayer, a Paris-based sales manager for a large food company, adding that his major dislikes are "long walks from security, no fast track, bag searches at the gate instead of when you enter the terminal and, on arrival, finding there’s no air bridge," meaning passengers have to disembark down the steps and often take a coach to the terminal building.
"I travel weekly to all corners of the world and visited 25 different countries in the last year, spending almost 200 nights away," Mr. Mayer says. "Good airports for me mean no or very short security queues, a good lounge with Wi-Fi near the gate and little or no transits between terminals.
"Terminal 5 at London’s Heathrow is good, Singapore’s Changi airport is OK and Schiphol in Amsterdam is pretty good, but Charles de Gaulle in Paris can be terribly confusing," he says. You often also have to travel long distances between gates and the main part of the airport.
Many business travelers based in the U.K. simply want airports to work better, says Anne Godfrey, chief executive of the Guild of Travel Management Companies, which represents many major companies arranging travel for business executives.
"The majority of respondents to our 2012 survey, which is about to be published, were not happy with the airport environment as a place to do work (outside of business class lounges) and were frustrated by the time it takes to move through airports, although they are largely satisfied with security measures," she says.
"They want Wi-Fi, access to work stations and power points (also a requirement on trains and at stations), appropriate levels of staff to minimize queuing and effective routing of passengers through airports." But delays remain the biggest frustration for business travelers, she says.
Copyright 2012 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.
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