Are big airports losing the competition for passengers?

<!–Retro airplane tags–>Imagine you’ve been asked to predict whether someone will choose to travel from airport A or airport B. (Assuming that both offer regular flights to the relevant destination.) What’s the first question you should be asking?

If you want to know which airport is nearer, you’re spot on.

According to a survey of passengers’ airport preferences, distance is the best predictor of which airport a passenger will choose to fly from. Passengers prefer airports that are nearby.

Here’s another question you probably know the answer to: What do passengers dislike most about airports? In another survey by the UK’s Civil Aviation Authority, the most frequent sources of passenger dissatisfaction were:
– long waiting times
– long walking distances
– insufficient staff/facilities

So here’s the really interesting question. If passengers value proximity and speed, how are big airports faring in the popularity stakes, compared to their regional rivals?

The big airport blues
Last year, the Freakonomics website polled readers for their best and worst airports. The results seem to suggest that some of the big airport ‘Goliaths’ are no match for regional ‘Davids’. In the post, Eric Morris refers to the ‘tremendous merits’ of flying in and out of small airports, and quotes one of his respondents as saying, “In general, small town airports are just a vastly more pleasant experience than the big ones.”

I’d second that. I’m fortunate to have six airports – three big and three small – within a 90-minute drive from my home. No prizes for guessing which ones I prefer.

The most heated responses came from Freakonomics readers who’d been ‘condemned’ (the actual word used by one respondent) to fly out of certain big airports:
– “Complete hell. Lines are long (and slow).”
– “Chaos 100% of the time.”
– “Big, sprawling and complicated.”

And from the writer, Eric Morris, himself: “Waits… are long, and it is not unheard of for security lines to run out of the security area, down the steps, through the check-in area, and then out of the building to snake back and forth on the sidewalk in front of the terminal.”

Why it’s not really a case of David vs Goliath
In a word, Incheon.

South Korea’s Incheon International Airport is one the largest and most successful airports in the world. For the past nine years, Incheon has been voted the world’s best airport in the ACI Airport Service Quality Survey. According to an article on, a passenger departing from Incheon has all the necessary processes completed within 19 minutes. Arrivals take just 11 minutes. Incheon’s operator is quoted as saying that these figures are “three times faster than ICAO’s recommended level”.

If a big airport like Incheon can achieve this, why can’t the others? What is it that separates the Incheons from the ‘airports from hell’?

Learning from the Copenhagen experience
Copenhagen Airport is the Nordic region’s busiest hub. Over a four-year period its one-hour morning peak increased by 150%, leaving its operator with a tough question: Invest in more capacity or embrace a new way of thinking?

New thinking won the day – and has made for very satisfied passengers. Copenhagen Airport has reduced process times, increased employee productivity by 42%, and was recently awarded Skytrax’s ‘world’s best security’ for the second year running.

At the Düsseldorf edition of the DELMIA Quintiq World Tour, Kasper Hounsgaard, head of operational and business analysis at Copenhagen Airport, identified what this ‘new thinking’ involves: “The thing about airport management is that you are managing so many different things. If you change something in one area, it will have an effect somewhere else…” In other words, “[You need to] focus on the entire value chain.” Hounsgaard also reveals that the way ahead for Copenhagen Airport has been a platform that integrates the planning and optimization of 11 different departments that have completely different rules and processes.

My take on the David vs Goliath debate is that it’s not about big versus small. It’s between those who are slow and inflexible, and those who are agile. And as Incheon proves, a big airport with the right tools and processes can be a big winner.

Video: Watch how award-winning Copenhagen Airport is optimizing its operations