Zurich Airport: European Central

Issue three’s airport focus feature examines how Zurich has developed as a hub at the heart of Europe. Sonja Zöchling Stucki reports

Zurich airport’s geographical position in the heart of Europe makes it a natural air traffic hub. In 2011 a total of 24.3 million passengers used Switzerland’s biggest airport for take-off, landing or connecting to other destinations. A total of 279,000 air traffic movements were counted and 415,000 tons of goods were handled in the same time frame.

Yet the airport has to combine its hub status with some of the strictest operational criteria in Europe. Because of its strict night flying ban Zurich is not an airport for airfreighters. Most of the goods handled at the airport are transported in the bellies of scheduled aircraft. Operation at Zurich airport starts at 6 o’clock in the morning and ends at 23.30 at night. Compared to other airports in Europe this is one of the strictest operational curfews around.

A brief history

In 1943 the council of the canton of Zurich checked several sites for an international airport. Two years later the Swiss parliament approved a plan to build the airport where it stands today, near the city. The airport opened in 1948 for civil air traffic movements even though the terminal building was not officially opened until 1953. In several expansion phases the airport grew steadily to fulfil the high demand of the market today.

During its history, Zurich airport has gone through some very touch times. The grounding of its home carrier Swissair in October 2001 was a major challenge. This happened 20 months after the privatisation of the airport which made matters even worse. Passenger numbers then dropped dramatically, due to the reduction of flights and destinations. The new home carrier Swiss struggeled quite a bit in its earliest years. This led to a loss of confidence in the market. Investors hesitated to do business with Flughafen Zürich AG. But strong management succeeded in leading the airport out of the doldrums and steady its position as a profitable airport. When Swiss was taken over by the German Lufthansa air traffic at Zurich, airport traffic started to increase continuously.

“Zurich 2010”, the Schengen project

Zurich airport had to prepare for the implementation of the Schengen treaty in March 2009. The Schengen Agreement abolished internal borders, enabling passport-free movement between a large number of European countries. Switzerland, which is not in the EU, implemented the agreement in December 2008.

To do so, the airport owner and operator Flughafen Zürich AG implemented the project “Zurich 2010”. That was quite a challenge. In order to strictly separate Schengen and Non Schengen passengers we almost had to build a second airport within the existing one.The project included new bus gates, a new passport control area, a connecting corridor between the new bus gates and the terminal, new arrival facilities, then the building for centralised security control and the new Dock B. The completion of the project cost a total of 430 million Swiss francs (Euros 356 million).

While relatively small in comparison to some of the larger European hubs such as Frankfurt, Zurich airport has tried to improve the qualiry of service for its passengers. This has been reflected in the World Travel Award, which Zurich won for eight years in a row. It denotes the high quality standard the airport strives for including, short ways for passengers, efficient services, cleanliness, and so on. In short, one could say the airport’s “swissness” is a big advantage. Also Zurich aims to offer passengers state-of-the art infrastructure, meaning the most modern check-in, boarding and shopping facilities available.

On 1 December 2011 two new important infrastructure impovements opened for service. One is the building for centralised security control, the other the new Dock B with its spectacular observation deck. Passengers taking a flight from Zurich, now pass the boarding pass control and then have direct access to a zone for security checks. The boarding pass controls are equipped with the latest technology. Passengers mostly pass through the self boarding devices. However, there are also passengers that prefer personal contact and therefore pass at the counter, where staff employed by the airport operator greet them.

Testing detection technology

There are four floors s in the new building with a total of 26 control lines. One entrance is reached from check-in 1, the other from check-in 2. One of the main difficulties had been combining the separate facilities of Dock A, Dock B and the remote Dock E while also segregating Schengen and non-Schengen passengers. For the latter, the solution was relatively simple; passengers are separated across different floors, while an overflow facility helps cater for the higher volume. Since the new control building has opened, there are less waiting times for passengers. The whole process is much smoother and quicker.

From January 19 until February 29, 2012 Zurch Airport participated in a test for special scanners to detect dangerous liquids in hand luggage. Several European airports carried out the tests in order to get some information about their impact on passenger processes at the airports. The aim was not to test the machines themselves for they have already been certified. Zurich will send its test report to the Federal Office for Civil Aviation, FOCA which will then send it to the European Commission.

Automation is playing an increasingly important part in speeding up this checking process, with boarding card readers expediting passengers through to the new security area. Not only does this reduce waiting times, it also has a direct impact on the number of staff required at checking areas. Where problems do arise, guides, employed by the Airport Steering group, intervene to help improve passenger flow throughout the facility.

Mix and match

With a relatively even split of services to Schengen and non Schengen destinations, the problems that arose with Zurich’s new centralised security building become more acute when it comes to separating passengers airside. Dock A is used exclusively for Schengen services, whereas Dock E hosts only non Schengen flights. Dock E is connected to the main airport area, the airside center, with the Sky Metro. The redevelopment of Dock B has offered the chance to cater for mixed rotations. There are two different levels. The one on top is the Schengen level, wheras the ground floor is used for non Schengen flights only. Additionally, on the ground floor there are nine bus gates from where passengers are transported to aircraft positioned on open stands. So far, since its opening on December 1, Dock B has fulfilled the expectations of both the airport operator as well as the passengers.

Observation deck

On top of the new Dock B an observation deck which is equipped with several unique design features and attracts thousands of visitors. In the first month after the opening date of December 1, 2011 more than 20,000 visitors came to the airport to have a look at this new feature. On the deck, there are so called airport scopes, especially developed for the new observation deck. Visitors can look through the scopes and fix mobile points of interest, such as aircraft moving in front of the dock. The machines also provide information on each visible aircraft such as which airline it belongs to, fliight destination, what type of an aircraft it is and how many seats are in the plane. No other airport in the world has this technology.

Furthermore there’s a separate pier that runs perpendicular to one of the aircraft stands, allowing visitors to witness the turnaround process first hand. Interaction is a large part of the terrace’s appeal. Air Traffic Communications can be heard through a specially designed information panel. For children, there is a large, airport-inspired play area, with various items of play equipment carrying the branding of various partners, including Swiss International Air Lines.

Based on the concept “fascination of flying” the 75.37 sq ft terrace is bound to become one of the top most visited spots in Switzerland. Security was one of the biggest risks associated with the observation deck and everyone accessing the terrace must pass through a security check point, which includes baggage x-ray and metal detector, similar to those for flying passengers. But that’s part of the fascination of flying.

Airport App: Going with the flow

As many users of Switzerland’s biggest airport nowadays have iPhones or other smartphones the marketing department of the airport operator developed a special app. The Zurich Airport App offers extensive information for travellers, meters and greeters and shoppers. Messages keep users automatically informed of the status of their flight. It can be downloaded free of charge from the iTunes App Store. So far, there has been great interest in the App. Social media channels Facebook and Twitter are also frequently used. In a bit more than a year over 8,600 fans regularly interact with the airport’s facebook site. A special airportTV, exclusively developed for the airport’s webpage regularly shows short films that allow a glimpse behind the scenes of the airport’s operations

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