How is an airport strongly defended?

Interview - after eco-criticism - Geneva airport boss defends domestic flights: "A ban would not help!"

After eco-criticism - the head of Geneva Airport defends domestic flights: "A ban would not help!"

Over 600,000 passengers fly between Geneva and Zurich every year. Domestic flights of this kind are increasingly being criticized in the climate debate. The Geneva airport boss André Schneider warns of the consequences of a ban, reveals his expansion plans and speaks about the negative consequences of Brexit.

Geneva Airport has grown significantly in recent years. The aging terminal is reaching its limits. Airport boss André Schneider looks from his office to the runway area, where he has to plan the future of the airport.

Born in Bern, who holds a doctorate in computer science, he didn't always have kerosene in his blood. The 59-year-old is a studied musician and even played with the Berlin Philharmonic. Later worked at the science institute CERN, at the “World Economic Forum” and at the ETH Lausanne in a leading position. He is also a film nerd: In his office there are models from “Back to the Future”, “Ghostbusters” and “Star Wars”.

Mr Schneider, 2018 was a summer of chaos for European aviation. How was summer 2019 in Geneva?

André Schneider: Not perfect, but much better last year. We had fewer delays and cancellations, on the one hand because of the measures taken by the air traffic control authorities, but also from us and the airlines. Swiss and Easyjet as well as ground handling have deployed additional machines and crews as reserves. That helped.

In Zurich, around every fourth Swiss plane takes off too late, and only around 75 percent of flights are on time. How is it in Geneva?

Our punctuality rate is also between 70 and 75 percent. For us, of course, this value is not satisfactory. Our goal is at least 80 percent. We already have phases today where we can achieve this value. But European air traffic remains overloaded and makes it impossible for us to always exceed the 80 percent mark.

You have been using computed tomography for security checks for about a year. Does that help?

Yes, we can use it to make checks more convenient and faster, because passengers can leave liquids, computers or cell phones in their luggage. We would like to install more such devices, but we don't have the space for them at the moment.

At the end of July, the number of passengers was up 1.5 percent. What is your forecast by the end of the year?

Between 1 and 1.5 percent. We primarily have point-to-point traffic and we already have excellent European connectivity. We are also planning new long-haul destinations, but we expect limited growth in the next few years due to population growth, but not due to massively more routes.

Swiss recently acquired Osaka and Washington D.C. announced as new long-haul destinations from Zurich. Were you disappointed that Geneva didn't get a chance?

I accept the Swiss strategy. Of course we talked to her about the new destinations, but Swiss only wants to fly long-haul flights from Geneva to New York, and that's okay. So what Swiss does does not affect us. In addition, we'd rather have Tokyo than Osaka. But fortunately we have numerous other airlines in Geneva that fly intercontinental. And again: We are not a hub like Zurich. Our long-haul routes only work thanks to local demand, not thanks to transfer passengers.

Musician, doctor, film nerd

André Schneider studied music at the Richard Strauss Conservatory and played with the Berlin Philharmonic. Born in Bern, he later obtained a doctorate in computer science. He worked at IBM, the research institute CERN, the WEF and at the ETH Lausanne. He has been the airport manager since 2016. The father of four is a big film fan: in his office there are sculptures from Hollywood films such as “Star Wars” and “Ghostbusters” sculptures on the bookshelves.

Who exactly are the passengers in Geneva?

We have a large catchment area that extends as far as Bern, Lyon and northern Italy. Almost 25 percent of our passengers are business travelers, we have a large proportion of passengers who live here or work for the UN and regularly visit their family members abroad. And we are also an important entry point for tourists.

The British are also important for Geneva, because of the London banking center and because many come on ski holidays via Geneva in winter. Are the effects of Brexit already showing?

Traffic is very important in both directions and London is our main destination. Brexit, of course, has an impact on the value of the pound. We felt that relatively early on, because people began to shop in the English duty-free shops more than in ours. When it came to flight rights, we could rely on the Federal Office for Civil Aviation, which quickly found a new solution in England. But if the British economy suddenly shrank sharply, traffic would definitely decline too.

Many wealthy tourists frequent Geneva. How much are the numbers of private jet flights increasing?

Last year the number of business jet flights rose sharply, by rich people, but also by international organizations. This year the number is decreasing again. Nevertheless, we remain the third largest airport for private jet flights in all of Europe.

Who is actually the bigger competitor for you: Lyon, Basel or Zurich?

Many look where the flights are the fastest, and others look primarily at the price. I have colleagues in Bern who prefer to fly from Geneva or Basel than from Zurich because the flights are cheaper. In terms of connections, however, the biggest competitor is clearly Zurich.

According to your statistics, 630,000 passengers flew between Geneva and Zurich last year. This is actually a classic train route. To what extent does this flight route make ecological sense for you?

If you only fly to Zurich, that makes little ecological sense, of course. You have to ask yourself certain questions. But if you choose Zurich as the transfer airport, then you cannot regard it as a single route. If that were forbidden, people would fly from Geneva via Frankfurt, Paris or Munich. That wouldn't help ecologically. Who wants to drive to Zurich Zug for three hours, then check-in there, through security and passport control, and so on. Here at Geneva Airport, 7 minutes by train from the city center, everything can be done in less than an hour. If these domestic flights were to be banned, Swiss ab would no longer be attractive to Genevans for long-haul flights.

Do you believe Swiss threats that it would practically give up the Zurich hub if there were further restrictions?

Yes, it is certainly possible. Because in the end, the passengers want to fly as comfortably as possible, without a lot of additional effort that extends the journey.

Would Geneva then help Swiss out as an alternative to Zurich?

That would be a political question. Do we then still want a hub in Switzerland? Many of our customers fly through other hubs abroad, Frankfurt, Vienna, Dubai, Doha, and so on. Our connection to other hubs is good. I think it would be a shame if Switzerland no longer had a Swiss hub. But the connection to distant destinations would be guaranteed.

Easyjet, the top dog at your airport with a 45 percent market share, is planning more and more transfer flights. Will Geneva eventually become a hub à la Zurich?

That's not our goal. We offer point-to-point flights. Not more. And in the current climate debate, mind games about such expansions are null and void anyway. We'd rather concentrate on defending our business today, which is important for the region. How should we be able to defend in public that we now want to attract 20 percent more passengers who only change trains in Geneva? No thanks.

Swiss is thinking out loud about canceling the flights from Zurich to Ticino ...

But not because of the climate debate, but because the train journey to Ticino with the new Gotthard tunnel has become significantly faster, so that the flight is no longer really faster.

Ticino wants flights from Geneva. How realistic is that?

A Lugano-Geneva flight cannot survive on its own, it would need a network. Darwin and Etihad Regional tried but failed. It's difficult because Milan is not far from Ticino.

Arrests and suspicions

Geneva Airport recently hit the negative headlines several times. Last autumn it became known that the controversial FDP State Councilor Pierre Maudet from Geneva had exerted more influence on the award of a concession for ground handling than was previously known. Maudet acted as the official supervisory board at that time. In May, the airport security chief and the head of a private security company were arrested on suspicion of bribery and improper conduct. Director André Schneider was criticized by the Geneva Court of Auditors for having misjudged the case. The investigations are still ongoing. Schneider did not want to comment on this in the interview. (bwe)

They forecast passenger growth from 17 million today to 25 million by 2030. At the same time, the Environment Commission of the Council of States is planning a climate tax on flight tickets between 30 and 120 francs. Do you fear less growth as a result?

You say it yourself: The 25 million is just an initial forecast within the framework of the federal government's "Aviation Infrastructure Plan". We adjust our forecasts, which represent our planning basis, every two to three years. The number could be larger or smaller. We're not being rewarded for attracting more passengers, nor are we triggering that growth. We just have to enable the expected traffic. But we also don't check whether an airline flies from Geneva or not.

How do you rate the connection to the airport by public transport?

You could always get a better one. Zurich and Geneva are of course very well positioned with their own SBB train station. But we still lack connections to the periphery, especially for early flights. We partially reacted ourselves. Since last autumn we have been paying for six bus routes that go to the airport from 4 a.m. in the various regions of the canton and are operated by the Geneva public transport company, TPG. Of course, this does not cover costs, but we have set ourselves the goal of 58 percent of all passengers traveling by public transport in the future.

The “Léman Express” mega public transport project will open at the end of the year, with numerous new stations and lines in the Lake Geneva region. What will this expansion change?

Very much. For residents in the south, including in France near the border, traveling by public transport will be much easier. Today people from the French city of Annemasse have to take the tram to the train station, which takes about 30 minutes, and then they have to get on the train. With the new “Léman Express” connections, the journey takes a lot less.

The current terminal was opened in 1968. It's tight and getting on in years. What are the plans for a new terminal?

In 2030 we would like to open a new, larger terminal at the same location. The challenge will be to build it while it is still in operation without restricting it. We can't just shut down operations for five years. We will cover the costs ourselves. I cannot yet say how high they will be, as we are still in a very early planning phase.

More than half a billion francs?

I definitely assume so. We will be able to pay for this with our own means.

How about a second slope?

Simply not possible. In the south, east and west are residential buildings and in the north, where space would be too tight anyway, is France. But we can handle the forecasted 25 million passengers by 2030 with one runway, even if it only stays on one forecast. Furthermore, is it difficult to predict what will happen in our industry beyond 10 years? Maybe then all the planes will take off vertically and there will no longer be any need for runways. In any case, we are not planning a second slope.

Growth could also be curtailed politically. In November, the people of Geneva vote to limit the expansion of the airport on the basis of an initiative by airport residents who complain about noise and environmental damage. How nervous are you?

Of course, people are always nervous about a referendum. If there is a yes, we would conform to the new law. The airport belongs to the canton. But it would be a challenge. Because sustainable development requires a balance between society, the economy and the environment. We don't want to find ourselves in a situation where it's all about the environment or just about the economy.

You studied classical music at the Richard Strauss Conservatory and played with the Berlin Philharmonic. In this respect, you should understand the noise-plagued residents. Or do you prefer aircraft noise to Beethoven now?

Of course I understand the residents. But if you listen to Beethoven too loudly, that bothers too! That is why we have launched many measures to reduce noise. This year we will have at least five percent fewer flights after 10 p.m. The number of aircraft movements should remain at the same level, as the aircraft tend to be larger. On the other hand, we want to make sure that international Geneva doesn't suddenly disappear. It's a balancing act.

Zurich receives regular awards. What can you learn from Zurich?

You can always learn something from Zurich and we talk to them a lot. Above all, what the Zurich-based company has achieved in the commercial sector is impressive. But we don't want to be "Zurich Two". We have a lot less space. We couldn't build a “circle” like the one that is currently being built in Zurich. We try to make the best of our size.

Zurich Airport is privatized and listed on the stock exchange. Will Geneva follow someday?

It is good for Geneva that we are state-owned. We are working hard to keep the private jets at the airport as well. It's different in Zurich. I can easily tell our owner, look, we might write a little less profit, but this strategy makes sense economically and for the region. A public company is under more pressure to focus primarily on profitability.

How dangerous are drones for Geneva Airport?

As dangerous as at other airports. Cases are on the rise, but so far there have been few really dangerous approaches. We are currently discussing possible defense systems with the police, Skyguide and the federal government. It's very complex. You can't just shoot down a drone like that. Because what if you miss it? Then where does the shot land? Would an eagle be better to bring the drone down? These questions are currently being clarified.

A few weeks ago, your head of security was arrested on suspicion of bribery and improper conduct. The Geneva Court of Auditors criticized you for having misjudged the case and not providing the Board of Directors with enough information. What are your reproaches?

We communicated on this immediately after these cases became known and I have nothing to add.

In that case, was there a moment when you considered resigning?

No.

Geneva Airport will celebrate its 100th birthday next year. What is planned?

We have planned some festivities that are still secret. But what I can already say now: We will again open a publicly accessible spectator terrace. So far we have lacked one.