What’s next for China’s air­ports?

Suc­cess­ful projects should be de­signed with the needs and de­sires of pas­sen­gers, em­ploy­ees and lo­cal res­i­dents in mind

China Daily European Weekly - - Cover Story - By MAX HIRSH

The con­struc­tion of Bei­jing’s sec­ond air­port hub in Dax­ing of­fers an op­por­tu­nity to re­flect on what Chi­nese air­ports have achieved so far, and how they can do bet­ter in the fu­ture. What are the next steps that China’s air­ports need to take in or­der to be­come world-lead­ing avi­a­tion hubs?

To an­swer that, let’s take a look at three chal­lenges that cur­rently con­front Chi­nese air­ports: how to im­prove the cus­tomer ex­pe­ri­ence, how to in­te­grate avi­a­tion with high-speed rail, and how to pro­mote ur­ban de­vel­op­ment around the air­port.

The fo­cus should be on the cus­tomer ex­pe­ri­ence. Chi­nese air­ports have a rep­u­ta­tion for tech­ni­cal com­pe­tence and ar­chi­tec­tural am­bi­tion. But they’re also known for con­fus­ing sig­nage, long walk­ing dis­tances and sparse re­tail of­fer­ings, and some­times it can be a night­mare to en­ter or exit the air­port at peak hours.

The next gen­er­a­tion of Chi­nese air­ports will need to fo­cus on the needs and de­sires of their cus­tomers. The first step? Iden­tify what types of pas­sen­gers your air­port hosts, and de­velop tai­lored strate­gies for each of them. Does your air­port host a lot of in­ter­na­tional busi­ness trav­el­ers? Bud­get tourists fly­ing on low-cost air­lines? Re­tirees vis­it­ing their chil­dren? Each of these pas­sen­ger seg­ments has unique needs and de­sires. For ex­am­ple, in an ageing so­ci­ety such as China’s, it’s cru­cial to en­sure that el­derly trav­el­ers have full ac­cess to air­port fa­cil­i­ties and can eas­ily nav­i­gate the ter­mi­nal.

In ad­di­tion, as China goes global, it will be es­sen­tial to pro­vide bet­ter sup­port for pas­sen­gers who do not speak Man­darin. Suc­cess­ful air­ports will of­fer tai­lored goods and ser­vices to dif­fer­ent types of pas­sen­gers in or­der to im­prove the over­all cus­tomer ex­pe­ri­ence, and to in­crease non-aero­nau­ti­cal revenue.

At the same time, Chi­nese air­ports need to cut down on delays, which are far too com­mon. De­layed flights sig­nif­i­cantly drive down the pas­sen­ger ex­pe­ri­ence and can spark bad be­hav­ior. Delays also pre­vent Chi­nese air­ports from be­com­ing ma­jor play­ers as in­ter­na­tional trans­fer hubs. You might of­fer your cus­tomers a won­der­ful trans­fer ex­pe­ri­ence within the ter­mi­nal, but if pas­sen­gers are wor­ried that they will miss their con­nect­ing flights due to delays, then they will not choose to fly through China.

The in­te­gra­tion of avi­a­tion and high-speed rail should be pro­moted. Suc­cess­ful air­ports are rein­vent­ing them­selves as mul­ti­modal mo­bil­ity hubs where road, rail and mar­itime net­works in­ter­sect with air trans­porta­tion. As the ex­am­ples of Shang­hai Hongqiao In­ter­na­tional Air­port and Bei­jing’s Dax­ing re­veal, China is quickly be­com­ing a global leader in the in­te­gra­tion of avi­a­tion and high-speed rail. But Chi­nese air­ports — and Chi­nese air­lines — need to do more if they want these in­ter­modal hubs to reach their full po­ten­tial.

A look abroad of­fers a few clues on how to do that. For ex­am­ple, the Ger­man air­line Lufthansa op­er­ates an on­line tick­et­ing plat­form where cus­tomers can com­bine air and rail jour­neys within a sin­gle pur­chase. On busy train routes, the air­line pro­vides ded­i­cated seat­ing for air­rail trans­fer pas­sen­gers in branded Lufthansa cars. Switzer­land’s rail­way au­thor­ity al­lows air trav­el­ers to deposit their bag­gage at train sta­tions, which is then checked through to their fi­nal des­ti­na­tion. Get­ting rid of lug­gage at the start of the jour­ney in­creases the speed and ef­fi­ciency of pas­sen­ger flows, and it makes pas­sen­gers more likely to pur­chase goods and ser­vices along the way.

Over­all, this air-rail in­te­gra­tion will be good for Chi­nese air­ports, which can in­crease their

The next gen­er­a­tion of Chi­nese air­ports will need to fo­cus on the needs and de­sires of their cus­tomers.

through­put and grow their catch­ment area — the geo­graphic area from which an air­port can ex­pect to draw pas­sen­gers — through high­speed con­nec­tions on the ground. And by shift­ing some short-haul traf­fic to high-speed rail, air­ports can free up ca­pac­ity for more lu­cra­tive medium- and long-haul flights. But re­sis­tance from air­lines, along with poor co­or­di­na­tion be­tween air and land trans­porta­tion min­istries, may pose sig­nif­i­cant chal­lenges. In re­sponse, suc­cess­ful air­ports will de­velop pilot pro­grams that pro­mote new forms of co­op­er­a­tive gov­er­nance, cross-in­vest­ment and prof­it­shar­ing across trans­porta­tion sec­tors.

New dis­tricts should be built around the air­port. Many Chi­nese cities are build­ing new dis­tricts around their air­ports to ad­vance broader ur­ban de­vel­op­ment and ru­ral re­form goals. Some of these new zones fo­cus on tech­no­log­i­cal in­no­va­tion and aim to at­tract re­search and de­vel­op­ment hubs and high-tech in­dus­tries. Oth­ers will house thou­sands of res­i­dents in model town­ships that em­pha­size walk­a­bil­ity and en­vi­ron­men­tal sus­tain­abil­ity. These are am­bi­tious goals, and they will dra­mat­i­cally ex­pand the spa­tial and func­tional scope of China’s air­ports.

How­ever, these projects will only suc­ceed if they can at­tract a mix of pub­lic and pri­vate in­vest­ment, and a mix of new res­i­dents, to the air­port area. Many air­port de­vel­op­ment zones fail to reach their full po­ten­tial be­cause they don’t have a clear un­der­stand­ing of who their tar­get cus­tomers are. They sim­ply string to­gether a se­ries of buzz­words and wait for in­vestors and res­i­dents to come rolling in. Based on a shaky busi­ness case, these projects fail to de­liver a sig­nif­i­cant re­turn on in­vest­ment.

By con­trast, suc­cess­ful air­port-area de­vel­op­ment projects iden­tify what their city is cur­rently lack­ing and what the lo­cal busi­ness com­mu­nity needs to grow. They then trans­late those in­sights into a de­vel­op­ment plan that re­sponds to those un­met de­mands. Do en­trepreneurs in your city re­quire spe­cific types of pro­duc­tion fa­cil­i­ties? Is there a short­age of cer­tain kinds of hous­ing, for ex­am­ple for young fam­i­lies or re­tirees? Does your city lack par­tic­u­lar leisure fa­cil­i­ties, such as a concert arena or an agri­tourism cen­ter? Above all, how can these projects lever­age the in­dus­tries and skill sets that al­ready ex­ist in the air­port area and cap­i­tal­ize on prox­im­ity to the air­port?

In re­cent decades, China has in­vested in air­port in­fra­struc­ture on a scale that is un­par­al­leled any­where else. While there are a few green­field projects on the hori­zon, much of that in­fra­struc­ture is now in place. As China tran­si­tions from a de­vel­op­ing avi­a­tion mar­ket into a ma­ture one, suc­cess­ful de­ci­sion-mak­ers will adapt their think­ing to that new re­al­ity. Above all, they need to shift the em­pha­sis from quan­tity to qual­ity. The days of im­press­ing the fly­ing pub­lic with gar­gan­tuan struc­tures are over; eco­nomic and en­vi­ron­men­tal sus­tain­abil­ity are the new pri­or­i­ties. In other words, it’s bet­ter to build a hu­man-scale air­port ter­mi­nal, out­fit­ted with high-qual­ity goods and ser­vices, rather than one that is over­sized and medi­ocre. Sim­i­larly, a com­pact air­port eco­nomic zone with a con­vinc­ing unique sell­ing propo­si­tion is more com­mer­cially vi­able and en­vi­ron­men­tally sus­tain­able than one that sprawls in ev­ery di­rec­tion and tries to at­tract dozens of dif­fer­ent in­dus­tries.

Ul­ti­mately, the eco­nomic dy­nam­ics of China’s air­ports re­volve around three sets of ac­tors: pas­sen­gers, air­port em­ploy­ees and lo­cal res­i­dents. Suc­cess­ful air­port projects are de­signed with the needs and de­sires of these three groups in mind. That peo­ple-fo­cused ap­proach em­pow­ers us to see more clearly how Chi­nese air­ports can im­prove their busi­ness model and, in so do­ing, es­tab­lish them­selves at the fore­front of global in­no­va­tion.

The au­thor is a pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Hong Kong and a lead­ing ex­pert on air­ports and ur­ban de­vel­op­ment. The views do not nec­es­sar­ily re­flect those of China Daily.

ZHANG CHENGLIANG / CHINA DAILY

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