Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Must All International Airports Be Bad?


I pointed out how Atlanta’s airport is too big to be considered convenient (unless you have rollerblades welded to your shoes). I told you about a planned airport near Beijing that will make Atlanta’s look tiny by comparison. You must be wondering by now if all international airports must be enormous. Surely a rule exists that mandates that terminal complexes at these airports be big enough to shelter the population of a major city.

Thankfully, no.  Monocle magazine recently named a relatively small international airport as the best in the world. The good news is that it serves as a convenient gateway to Asia for European travelers. The bad news, for US travelers, is that it’s in Finland. That won’t help me much the next time I have to fly to California, unless the small model for airport design takes hold here in the US.

Helsinki's main terminal---photo courtesy of Antti Havukainen/Wikipedia

Helsinki’s Airport (Helsinki-Vantaa) handles only about 14 million passengers per year. That’s roughly 15% of Atlanta’s total and 4 million less than Reagan National in Washington. However, the airport’s diminutive size in traffic volume obscures its excellent connections via the twenty airlines that serve it. 

Look at a globe and you will see why airlines fly there. Go over the Arctic and you find yourself in thriving eastern Asia. Go south or southeast and you’re in Eastern Europe. Northwesterly flights will take you to the Americas. Southwestern flights go to the heart of the European Union. 

Exterior of Helsinki Airport---photo courtesy of Aku/Wikipedia

I can hear your objections:

1.      Surely all of these connecting flights play havoc with travelers’ itineraries, right? It’s a small airport. The planes will stack up on the runway or circle the field forever, just as they do in Atlanta when the summer thunderstorms roll through.

Actually, no.  The typical transfer time from one domestic flight to another is 20 minutes. Compare that to London Heathrow’s appalling 45 minutes. Beijing’s Daxing Airport, a planned complex that will be far larger than Heathrow, will probably require several days to transfer. Business travelers changing planes will have to hurry, lest they hit retirement before reaching their connecting flight.

2.       Okay, but the weather in Helsinki must be a problem. This is Finland, after all. The airport’s latitude is the nearly the same as Anchorage, Alaska. Blizzards must be as common as takeoffs.

True, a Nordic winter would only be considered fun by a polar bear, but the Finns long ago figured out how to keep Helsinki’s three runways plowed. In fact, they are so good at keeping the airport open that delays due to snow seldom exceed 30 minutes. Think about that the next time you are marooned in Chicago waiting on O’Hare airport to reopen after a few inches hit the tarmac. 

Snow at Helsinki Airport. Imagine that! ---photo courtesy of Joi Ito/Wikipedia

This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. The small size of the airport makes it more manageable, whether from the viewpoint of a passenger or administrator.  Helsinki’s airport has a total landmass of between 8-10 square kilometers (5-6 square miles). Atlanta has a landmass of 19-20 square kilometers (12 square miles). For the passenger, that will most likely translate into a shorter distance to, from, or between gates at Helsinki than Atlanta. 

Aerial view of Helsinki Airport---Photo courtesy of Migro/Wikipedia

For the administrator, more developed area means higher maintenance and operating costs. Those costs get passed along to the airlines and to you, the consumer. I’ll bet the small model for airports is looking pretty good to you by now.

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