What can commercial airports learn from private aviation?

On a recent trip to Farnborough Airport – the birthplace of British aviation – International Airport Review’s Assistant Editor, Lily Mae Pacey sat down with its CEO, Simon Geere. Together they discussed the airport’s recent achievements in sustainability and social responsibility, and how commercial airports can learn a thing or two from the private sector and the passenger-centric values they champion.

When visiting Farnborough Airport, you cannot help but notice how much more seamless, efficient, and effortless it is to fly private. As you pass through the front doors of the terminal into a compact, clean, and minimalistic space, the absence of the typical hustle and bustle of large crowds, queuing, and rushing to find your gate, does not go unnoticed. It provokes the question, what can commercial airports learn from a private airport?

Geere has experience of both, having worked for both London Heathrow (LHR) and London Luton Airport (LTN) earlier in his career before moving across to Macquarie Group, the company that acquired Farnborough in 2019.

Speaking about his own experience in both commercial and private aviation, Geere explained how the knowledge he has acquired over the last 26 years, means he has “a foot in both camps”; and this experience has informed how he manages Farnborough Airport.

A different dynamic

According to Geere, what differentiates a private airport from a commercial airport is the absence of airlines at private airports: “In a commercial passenger airport, the airline community has a heavy influence on airport operations, including control over their own handling and fuelling companies. A commercial airport acts as if it is community landlord, as such, running the terminal and hoping to optimise retail, parking, and so forth.”

In fact, a private airport works under a very different dynamic, working to position products and outlining key value opportunities, working alongside one key shareholder, without the need for airlines, large passenger numbers, and retail. Therefore, both the operator’s and consumer passenger’s airport experience are entirely at the hands of the airport itself.

A commercial airport acts as if it is community landlord, as such, running the terminal and hoping to optimise retail, parking, and so forth”

Working with a singular shareholder allows Farnborough Airport to align on key issues and ensure a clear solution promptly. Geere further explained how the airport has “total control over the experience that the operator and the consumer passenger have, allowing us to deliver a bespoke product to the customers and at a five-star level of service.”

Passenger experience challenges at commercial airports

Currently, Geere sits on the AGS Airports board. He mentioned that upholding a quality passenger experience is a core challenge commercial airports continue to face, specifically with issues such as rising inflation, airline payments, and the gradual disappearance of duty free. “All of these queries, jolts the question of, how do you create a ‘product’ that people will want to come to you and use?”

Credit: Farnborough Airport (FAB)

As a result of low-cost airlines intentionally paying the bare minimum to airports, airports have no alternative but to provide lower quality facilities. “The feeling of glamour seems to be sucked out of the whole commercial airport process. That is what we stand against at Farnborough Airport. We can control a lot of elements, but we will continually refine and improve the levels of passenger experience and I think that is an opportunity for all airports competing against one another.”

Geere summarised that commercial airports need to focus more on the passenger experience and should target ‘premium’ attributes, that would deter customers from looking to other travel alternatives.

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