An interview with Thomas Schnalke, CEO Düsseldorf Airport. By Ross Falconer
The Rhine-Ruhr region is an economic powerhouse. It accounts for about 15% of Germany’s GDP, making it the third-largest metropolitan area in the EU in terms of gross regional product (GRP) – behind only Paris and Greater London, and the 16th largest in the world.
Düsseldorf Airport is at the heart of this thriving region, and its location means it has an above-average demand for business travel – some 40% of trips are business-related. Rhine-Ruhr is home to 12 Fortune Global 500 companies, including two headquartered in Düsseldorf – Metro Group (a diversified retailer), and Henkel (a chemical and consumer goods company).
“The metropolitan regions of London, Paris, and Düsseldorf (Rhine-Ruhr region) are in a league of their own,” says Thomas Schnalke, CEO Düsseldorf Airport. “Our airport secures the international accessibility of many cities in our catchment area. Direct connections to global economic regions are an important factor in our globalised world. The airport and its connectivity is one of the most important reasons why thousands of international businesses have located to the Rhine-Ruhr region and generated secure jobs and prosperity here. The airport alone is responsible for 54,000 direct and indirect jobs.”
The Düsseldorf story is one of continued growth. 2016 saw a seventh consecutive annual traffic record, with a 4.7% rise to 23.5 million passengers. That has continued into 2017 – the airport’s 90th anniversary year – the latest figures show an impressive 14% growth in the first five months, and about 25 million passengers are expected for the year as a whole.
“Our airport’s exceptional location in the heart of one of Europe’s biggest metropolitan areas, the very positive economic development in Germany, and the steadily growing need for mobility by both people and businesses, has been resulting for years now in more and more airlines connecting Düsseldorf and the whole world, and adding more flights and larger aircraft,” Schnalke explains.
This success is being achieved against the backdrop of a diverse, competitive airport landscape in the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, with its six international airports (Düsseldorf, Cologne/Bonn, Dortmund, Münster Osnabrück, Paderborn Lippstadt, and Weeze). “Düsseldorf Airport has a passenger market share of more than 60% and is the only airport with a considerable number of long-haul flights,” Schnalke says. “The next largest airport, Cologne/Bonn [11.9 million passengers], features a large cargo business and has been focusing on the low-cost segment. The remaining four airports offer primarily leisure traffic in low volumes and connecting services for the larger hubs of Munich and Frankfurt.”
‘Perfect travel experience for all passengers’
Thanks to the dense networks of oneworld member airberlin, and Star Alliance member Lufthansa, Düsseldorf Airport offers comprehensive connectivity. Schnalke comments that the continued development of these partnerships is essential, while the focus has also been on further deepening its network of long-haul connections.
This summer, airlines are offering a record 135 weekly departures to long-haul destinations. A strong demand for additional intercontinental routes, for example to China and India, comes from both businesses and leisure travellers. “That is why issuing a new operating license is an important first step even to be able to offer the requisite slots,” Schnalke explains. “In the long-term, we want to offer an appealing set of quality and budget airlines and make a perfect travel experience possible for all passenger groups. Düsseldorf is among the five European airports with the largest excess demand for slots. People and businesses want to be mobile and connected to the world, so we applied for a 19% increase in moving capacity. That will mean several minor construction projects, such as creating eight additional parking positions. We expect a decision from the Ministry of Transportation by next year.”
The airport is proactive in stimulating new route development. It offers financial support to airlines when they reach a degree of capacity use that is either above average or shows improvement when compared to the previous year. Similarly, financial support is offered to airlines if they expand passenger numbers on intercontinental services, or if their volume of connecting traffic increases. Incentives range from €0.80 to €1.30 per passenger.
Significant enhancements to the long-haul network include Singapore Airlines commencing a three times weekly A350-900 service from Singapore in July last year, and Air Seychelles starting a twice-weekly A330-200 service from the Seychelles in March 2017. Meanwhile, Emirates now operates the A380 on both of its daily Dubai-Düsseldorf services.
“Besides Singapore and the Seychelles, we offer direct flights to destinations like Tokyo, Hong Kong, Beijing, Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and many in North America and in the Caribbean,” Schnalke says. “We think that a strong Federal State like North Rhine-Westphalia [2016 GDP: €669.7bn], which would rank as number five in Europe as an independent country, needs connections to the leading economic centres of the world. That is why we’ll keep working on expanding our long-haul capacities. The demand definitely exists.”
airberlin expanded its hub operation at Düsseldorf on 6 May, with the introduction of a five times weekly service to Orlando, adding to its existing North American routes from Düsseldorf to New York, Los Angeles, Miami, Fort Myers, Boston, and San Francisco.
Meanwhile, All Nippon Airways (ANA) has upgraded its daily Düsseldorf-Tokyo Narita service to the 787-9, three years after launching the route. “This underscores the attractiveness of Düsseldorf Airport for long-haul routes to Asia,” Schnalke comments. Indeed, North Rhine-Westphalia has a major Japanese community of some 12,000, with 7,000 alone living in Düsseldorf – the most of any European city. Around 120 Japanese companies have their European headquarters in Düsseldorf, including major brands such as Alps Electric, Canon, Fujifilm, Mitsubishi, Mitsui, Shiseido, Toshiba, and Toyota.
Constant non-aeronautical revenue development
Düsseldorf is similarly progressive in its approach to generating non-aeronautical revenues. These have been steadily maintained at about 40% of the airport’s total revenues and are, therefore, a major part of its business success. “It goes without saying that these areas have to keep up with the times and constantly develop,” Schnalke asserts. “Our new conference centre, new restaurants and bars in the terminal, and our parking robot Ray are just a few examples.”
The new 3,000sqm conference centre at the heart of the airport further enhances Düsseldorf’s position as a business travel destination. DUSconference, as it is known, opened on 10 May and is a partnership with SSP, which will also open eight food & beverage outlets at the airport.
“Easy access makes international airports attractive meeting locations,” says Schnalke. “That is why we have elevated our conference centre to a new level by investing €2.5 million, and found a partner in SSP that is not just strong, but has also turned an innovative food & beverage concept into a high-quality product.”
The diverse DUSconference offer includes ‘Web Corners’ and ‘Plug-in Workstations’, which are designed to provide flexible, quiet work areas that can be rented without a reservation. Meanwhile, ‘Think Tank’ meeting rooms offer space for small groups to hold creative sessions. “Because no registration or set appointments are required, they make perfect options for working on the go,” Schnalke notes. “A business lounge allows meeting in a relaxed atmosphere and, if you need more space, there are meeting rooms for up to 12 people – some with a direct view of the apron and runways. For larger groups, there are also meeting rooms for up to 320 people.”
DUSconference guests can also choose from a selection of diverse brands from the SSP portfolio, from fine pastry goods from the French Boulangerie Épi to creations from the famous TV chefs Tim Mälzer and Jamie Oliver served in Hausmann’s and Jamie’s Deli.
The airport is building on this with the continued development of its 230,000sqm office and business park, which will be fully complete in 2018. The anchor tenant is Düsseldorf’s first Maritim Hotel – directly connected to the terminal and the biggest convention hotel in North Rhine-Westphalia. Other tenants include Verein Deutscher Ingenieure (the association of German engineers), and Porsche.
Airport Carbon Accredited: Level 3 Optimisation
Environmental sustainability is front and centre of all infrastructure investment decisions at Düsseldorf. The airport recently progressed to Level 3 Optimisation of ACI’s Airport Carbon Accreditation, and is evaluating the steps necessary to progress to Level 3+ Neutrality.
“Protecting the environment and thoughtful handling of natural resources are powerful motivators for the steps we take,” Schnalke explains. “We are currently in the process of building a fleet of electric vehicles. Also, we have replaced lighting with LEDs wherever possible. Several solar, photovoltaic, and thermal power stations produce clean electricity. Moreover, our new administrative building adheres to the most modern environmental and energy standards.”
The airport also now has two hybrid vehicles in its fleet, which are used on the apron. “We are particularly striving to reduce our CO2 emissions in the long-term,” Schnalke adds. “We have set ourselves the objective of converting around 30 vehicles to alternative fuels by 2020. We already have 15 electric vehicles as part of our fleet, and with 19 hybrid vehicles expected this year, we will reach our target this year. This is a great result and at the same time an incentive to continue driving our sustainability strategy.”
A beacon of digital innovation
We are, of course, living in the age of the connected traveller. Already, 83% of passengers carry smartphones, while 60% of travellers use social media on their journey. Tech-savvy Millennials, and subsequently Generation Z (those born from 1995 onwards), expect a more personalised travel experience with digital communication at its heart.
Düsseldorf is clearly embracing this trend. “Digital communication channels for travellers are already extremely important today, and will become even more important in the future,” says Schnalke. “That is why we are currently working on many new digital products. Our website dus.com is a source of information for travellers, their friends and family, and other target groups. We’re already successful in this area today.”
The airport is particularly proactive across social media, and has accumulated 117,000 ‘likes’ on Facebook, 1,500 followers on Twitter, and 5,200 followers on Instagram. “We are also looking at beacons as a very important technology, which we will use more in the retail areas in future,” Schnalke adds.
Indeed, these digital developments are just part of a wider emphasis on enhancing the passenger journey through the airport.
“Düsseldorf Airport’s lifeblood is its proximity,” Schnalke comments. “What generally creates a special customer experience for our passengers is easy access, short distances onsite, extensive flight options from our partners for optimised connections, and a high quality of stay as experienced in the architecture, shopping and culinary options. Of course, there is always room for improvement. That’s what we work on every day – successfully.”
While Düsseldorf’s focus is firmly on the future, the airport did take time to mark its 90th anniversary on 19 April alongside passengers, colleagues, visitors, and the media, with a major ceremony planned in 10 years for its centenary.
The main focus right now is on the peak summer travel season. “We want everyone who uses the airport for their vacation travel this summer to enjoy their time with us. Moreover, expanding our moving capacities is essential for us. That’s the only way for us to develop in the future. Just as importantly, we will move our airport into the digital age more and more. There’s a lot to be done – but it’s fun,” Schnalke concludes.
Düsseldorf Airport factbox
- 2016: 23.5 million passengers
- 2016 passenger traffic growth: 4.7%
- 2017 passenger traffic growth (Jan-May): 14%
- Key airline customers: airberlin, Eurowings/Germanwings, Lufthansa, Condor, Sun Express
- Number of routes: approx. 200
- Top 5 destinations: Munich, Palma de Mallorca, Berlin, Istanbul, Vienna