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MARKETING & COMMUNICATIONS Last modified on October 26, 2012

Route to success: 'Airport route development marketing is crucial'

An airport’s route development-focused marketing efforts are crucial to its success and the potential future prosperity of the communities they serve, writes Tony Griffin.

Sometimes when I read the newspapers I wonder if I should feel guilty about working in route development because of aviation’s impact on the environment.

Who, after all, wants to be accused of contributing toward the environmental decline of the planet, despite the fact that aviation only accounts for around 2% of all global CO2 emissions?

At ASM, we recently worked with Leeds Bradford Airport in the UK and helped them secure a new British Airways service to Heathrow. Everyone was delighted, yet the announcement was met with dismay by an environmental campaigner who objected that London is already accessible from Yorkshire by other “less polluting” ways of travel.

Negative press is, of course, not unusual in this industry. Indeed,  aviation is often in the media for all the wrong reasons. Long queues at security and immigration lanes, and opposition to airport expansion projects, are just two examples.

When faced with negativity, I remind myself of all the good things that new routes bring to cities, regions and even countries and continents.

I am also reminded of a meeting I had with the stakeholders of a European tourist destination last year. The room was packed with 30 professionals crying out for a new air service. Indeed, so desperate were they to have the opportunity to bring in passengers that would potentially fill up their hotels, eat in their restaurants and buy their souvenirs, that they were arguing amongst themselves.

Why were they so enthusiastic? Because they could see the bigger picture and felt that the route would help secure the futures of their businesses and, ultimately, a better quality of life for their children and grandchildren.

Suddenly I don’t feel guilty, and I acknowledge that route development doesn’t just build an air network, it provides a framework for an airport’s destiny, makes it more attractive to use and, most importantly of all,  brings in passengers. 

And let’s be perfectly clear here, passengers don’t just contribute to the airport itself; they potentially (as my lively stakeholders were aware) create jobs, boost tourism, stimulate business, increase exports and benefit the airport’s town, region or even country. 

Economic benefits

In fact for every 100 airline jobs, approximately 360 are supported in the wider community. This is the type of information that should be grabbing headlines in these dark financial times, as the most successful route development teams know only too well, but as the saying goes, good news doesn’t sell newspapers!

Any airport that aspires to win new routes, and the positive headlines  that go with them, needs a route development team at its heart, which not  only has a deep understanding of its own market, but also that of  its competition.

The team must know the airport’s customers, engage its stakeholders and, most importantly of all, be successful at winning  new routes. 

In today’s tough operating environment, a route development team has to work harder than ever before. Airlines are failing (in 2012 to date, in Europe alone, we have lost Malév, Spanair, Cirrus, Cimber Sterling, Skyways and Central Connect Airlines), they are consolidating – it is arguable that the AA/US merger has been inevitable for some time – and they are joining alliances (even a Gulf carrier is rumoured to be joining one of the big three by the end of the year). 

Indeed, many carriers are simply aiming to hold on to what routes they have and are not actively looking at new destinations.

Factors out of the control of both the airlines and airports, such as unpredictable fuel levels and controversial government taxation, have also had a negative impact on route development.

This summer, for example, we saw Ryanair pull 15 routes from Spain due to a doubling of the departure tax.

As a result of the difficult market conditions, airports’ new route target lists are shrinking; there are fewer opportunities to fight for, and less airline network planners to negotiate with. 

Driving growth

As anyone who has ever attended an Airport Cities conference will tell you, airports are becoming increasingly inventive in pursuit of new sources of non-aeronautical related revenue.

In fact an ever-increasing number of airports are building office blocks, free trade zones, hotels, convention centres and residential buildings on their land or close to the perimeter fence in a bid to find new revenue streams and secure their future as an economic driver of their community.

However, it is important to remember that in the long-term, route development is still key to driving an airport’s growth.

The Chinese company looking to build a regional satellite office at  your airport city, for instance, will arguably choose to locate at your competitor’s airport if they have the air services and accessibility that you lack.

Commercial partnerships

The airlines’ view of airports has drastically changed over the last 20 years. Airports are no longer seen as a public service operation run by civil servants, but as commercial partners with the expectation of providing not only market information, but also financial incentives that absorb some of the commercial risks.

From a route development perspective, and in this commercial transaction or relationship, the airline is the most important customer.

After all, committing an aircraft to a new market is a huge risk proposition from an airline’s perspective, only heightened by the high cost of fuel and the stuttering global economy. 

Airlines rely on an airport’s assessment of a potential market opportunity as they understand the local market better than anyone, and it is not a decision that they can make independently.

Given the economic climate, attracting an airline to a new airport or unproven market requires an expert team consisting of marketeers, analysts and top negotiators. 

The route development teams at Warsaw Modlin Airport (Europe’s newest airport) and Lublin Airport (due to open later this year) are examples of best practice, as both of these Polish success stories secured new routes before their opening. 

Warsaw Modlin opened in July of this year, with 19 Wizz Air routes, and eight initial Ryanair routes, which will be increased to 19 this autumn. Lublin Airport will start operations later this year with Wizz Air services to London Luton and Oslo already secured. 

How did they achieve these results? For several years now both airports have had a clear vision of where they want to be. At ASM, we completed a preliminary study on behalf of Lublin Airport in 2008, which identified opportunities and enablers. Meetings were then held with airline decision makers, which gave the airport factual and realistic likely outcomes from the beginning. 

From that point, the Lublin team was able to work towards a clear goal, building momentum and awareness in the airline community. 

Likewise, Warsaw Modlin has always had clear plans. They know their catchment area, their inbound and outbound markets and with capacity constraints at Warsaw Chopin, they have been able to offer a real alternative for carriers wanting to serve the Polish capital.

It has engaged airlines with their pricing structures and expectations of passenger volume from the start.

Changing marketplace

Deregulation and airport privatisation has increased pressure on airports to grow traffic, to be profitable and compete with other airports.

The launch of a new route is a long-winded process, a courtship ritual even, which has seen the way that airports communicate to potential airline customers evolve over the last 20 years.

Relationship building is key to route development – gone are the days when airports had a quick chat with an airline station manager and prayed that they would start an air service. Nowadays, if you build it, it does not necessarily mean that the customers will come.

Airport–airline relationships often begin at industry events, such as Routes, that bring both parties together for 20 and 50-minute networking sessions, scheduled at precisely timed intervals. Airports initiate the route planning process by requesting meetings with their target airlines to propose new air service opportunities.

Longevity is also key – conversations continue throughout the year, maintaining the momentum and ensuring continued customer engagement.

In May 2012, ASM were proud to see Qatar Airways announce plans to launch services to our client, Zagreb Airport, later this year.

Zagreb Airport first met with the airline back in 2008. Since then, they have tenaciously continued their relationship with the carrier, meeting with them at every available opportunity, keeping them updated about changes and utilising the Routes events and their profile on Routesonline.com to the full.

In an age of wavering customer loyalty, every opportunity to engage, network, and communicate with existing and potential clients must be seized.

Whilst more traditional marketing communication channels including print advertising, newsletters, and sales missions are still employed, the new avenues of interaction – digital marketing and social media – enable airports to consistently reach their customers more often and to build and strengthen relationships on a multi-platform basis.

Business relationships and opportunities are being forged online, through social networks (LinkedIn, Twitter, and Facebook) and niche industry websites such as routesonline.com that provide built communities of route development professionals.

Forums enable airports to promote their market opportunities  and campaign their route development programme 365 days a year,  with airports able to list their target routes and airlines providing  insight into their network strategy, markets of interest and  data requirements.

The launch of AirAsia X’s formal e-tender on Routesonline in 2011 was a milestone in route development, formalising the network development process, gathering data online, and allowing airports to compete for new service and in a format stipulated by the airline, exclusively online.

Carriers such as start-up Singaporean low-cost, long-haul, Scoot, and low-cost Philippine, Cebu Pacific Air, have followed suit in 2012, inviting airports to send proposals for the allocation of their aircraft, through the Route Exchange portal on Routesonline.com.

Pricing and incentive schemes are now the norm, as is the inclusion of external stakeholders, such as tourism authorities and economic development agencies (which often have access to important supporting data and route development funds), in order to make a solid case.

Returning to Leeds Bradford Airport, concern from environmental campaigners aside, the UK gateway has enjoyed a successful 2012.

Its route development team are experts at engaging their stakeholders, they use them to bolster their route development efforts; both the aforementioned British Airways service and Monarch’s intention to introduce its sixth UK base have recently been announced.   

Their stakeholder support has given their business cases credibility; the vice president of Bradford’s Chamber of Commerce commented that his members “lobbied hard for flights to London”, whilst the chief executive of marketing for Leeds spoke to the press about how an air service to London is vital to attracting investment and driving growth in the region. 

After their Monarch announcement, the gateway grabbed the headlines for all the right reasons; for example, “200 jobs for Leeds Bradford following Monarch base”.  I am certain that the route development team at the airport do not feel guilty when they read the papers. 

There are many facets to life in the aviation sector and route development is only one – albeit, a very important one. All of us have a duty to be vigilant and honest when it comes to developing new business and be clear that we all, to a greater or lesser degree, have an impact on the environment.

As much as we seek to establish new routes and connect airports, communities and economies, it is incumbent upon other stakeholders (particularly national governments, regional economic/political entities and industry associations) to similarly develop a sustainable, environmental framework for the industry to adhere to.

The world is growing, changing and shrinking, technological development cycles are ever shortening. Aviation has a role to play, and ours within that, is sustainable route development.

About the author

Tony Griffin is senior vice president of Manchester-based ASM.  He can be contacted at

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