Four airports in France and Switzerland service the huge influx of Alpine sports enthusiasts during the winter season. This requires close co-operation and attention to detail in ensuring that airports and their connecting road infrastructure are kept running smoothly. Gary Mason reports.
France’s Rhone-Alpes region comprises the largest ski-field in the world encompassing approximately 200 resorts enjoyed by winter sports enthusiasts during the ski season. But some of these resorts are difficult to get to and the importance of having airports that are equipped to deal with high volumes of traffic and provide winter operations cannot be overstated. But it is not just the airport infrastructure that needs to remain operational during peak winter season. As most of the many resorts are accessible only by road it is vital that the onward travel arrangements from the airports in the region are also maintained at maximum efficiency.
For example, Lyon-Saint Exupéry Airport is an important regional hub for skiers with 300,000 coming through the airport each year on their way to the many resorts in the northern French Alps – the biggest skiable area in the world.
The airport, which is the third largest in France, has now tailored its passenger offering to cater specifically for skiers including dedicated ground handling staff and other facilities.
Some 20 dedicated staff members are on hand to take care of skiers. Parking spaces right next to the terminals are set aside for skiers and passengers can easily find their travel agency in the new Travel Agency Zone inside the airport.
Instead of having to queue twice (once with bags and once with skis at oversized baggage), passengers can now register both at check-in. A Lyon Airports rep, accompanied by a security guard, will collect their skis or snowboard and take them straight to security. After landing, a rep picks up passengers’ skis and kit and puts them on racks for collection. This means skis and boards are kept safe and baggage collection is significantly improved.
There are several ways to get to the Alps from the airport, all in less than an hour and a half, and all avoiding travelling through cities: by car on the A42-A43 motorway network; by bus on the ALTIBUS and Faure Vercors ski shuttles, which link to nearly 40 stations; by on-demand transfers to 30 stations; or by train on the TGV services to the Alps (one daily return to Saint Jean de Maurienne, and connections to Northern Italy). Other options are taxis and car rental. In two out of every three cases, getting to ski stations in the Northern French Alps is quicker from Lyon-Saint Exupéry than from any other large international airport.
Philippe Bernand, CEO of Lyon Airport told Airport Focus: “ We have the proximity of the Alps which makes us a natural hub for tourism in the region,” he says. “It is very strange because in the minds of many people Geneva is the airport which provides the main access to the Alps because it is very well known around the world. But in fact if you look at the time to go from the airport to the ski resorts it is far more rapid to go through Lyon than to go through Geneva. On top of that around Geneva there are many traffic jams at the weekend in winter. We have to play this card and progressively to win market share.”
Lyon airport provides easy access to more than 30 ski resorts via a regular shuttle service from December to the beginning of April. A service is also available all year round to resorts in the five alpine valleys.
According to Bernand this is not a simple operation. “You have to operate the onward transport very close to the terminals and even for passengers arriving on the same plane the onward transport requirement is not just one or two buses going to a handful or resorts but 30 buses going to the same number of different ski resorts,” he says.
Of course, there are other airports both in France and Switzerland that handle the winter season ski traffic, notably Geneva, Grenoble and Chambery. But with its significant increase in low cost carriers, Lyon airport has ambitions to service more of the resorts as a regional hub during the winter months.
The airport also provides a heli-transfer service to some resorts as well as between three and five scheduled coach transfer services every day during the winter season.
According to Stephane Geffroy, Sales and Marketing Director for Aeroports de Lyon, the airport has made a consicious effort to retailor its offering during winter to the Alpine sports market. “It starts at arrival with ski equipment arriving at a specific stand next to the luggage belts. Passengers don’t have to go to a different location to collect their skis. All the tour operators working through Lyon can park the buses directly next to the terminals so there are no long walks with bulky equipment.
We like to think we give a full terminal experience to every ski traveller as opposed to other airports.”
The new terminal 1 construction which is almost finished will have 30 dedicated coach spaces directly in front of it which head of route development David Thompson describes as a “real game changer.”
In order to fulfill its role as a gateway to the Alps, the airport needs to maintain an efficient capability to stay open for winter operations. The airport has two category 3 runways suitable for low visibility take-offs and landings and during bad weather planes destined for Grenoble and Chambery are regularly re-routed to the airport, according to Bernand. “We are well positioned with significant means to deal with big weather events,’ he says.
It is not unusual for the airport to have 8 cms of snowfall in the winter months and two years ago the airport experienced one metre of snowfall in just three weeks. That included 35 cms of snowfall in one afternoon. But the airport was kept open except for a short period when sweepers were operating to clear the runways. For winter operations the airport uses four big sweepers that can clear 80 kms per hour. This means that the runway can be cleared in about 20 minutes. The airport also has lighting systems that are recessed in the runways so that winter clearing equipment can operate without interference.
According to Geffroy ski resort passengers are reassured to arrive at an airport with a good covering of snow because that is what they have paid their money to travel for but is also vital that the winter weather does not disrupt their arrival at the airport or onward travel.
“We have two runways which gives us some operational flexibility. We have also improved our operations in the last two years in terms of our de-icing procedures. We don’t de-ice on the stands any more but next to the runway which means we are only de-icing aircraft that are ready to go. We learnt about the benefits of this system from Gatwick.”
But because skiers are accessing the Alpine resorts from a number of different airports in the same regional cluster it is very important that they co-operate with one another despite being in direct completion for the same tourist traffic. For example Lyon has a formal arrangement with Geneva, Grenoble and Cambery airport to collaborate whenever there are difficult weather conditions.
“We work together so that if aircraft need to be re-routed we can maintain capacity,” says Geffroy. “On arrival at airports which were not the intended destination this also means being able to handle the passengers and provided onward transport through buses to the resorts. Maybe a couple of years ago that wouldn’t have happened.”
During the last winter season Lyon says there was only one day where a runway had to be closed for two hours because of snow. “If there is storm there is not much you can do because if it is snowing very hard without interruption, it is impossible to clear a runway completely,” says Bernand. “You have to wait for it to stop and then clear it but it is honestly very rare that this happens. Since 2007 I think there have been only two days in which the four airports that serve the Alps have been badly affected by extreme weather in terms of their normal operations.”