Making the connection

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For some, connecting airports mean crowds, congestion, delays and a greasy burger for dinner. Others see connections as an opportunity to shop, relax or catch up on work. Whatever your view, if you’re a regular business traveler, you’re unlikely to avoid connections. Which is why knowing what to look for in a good connecting airport, and where the best ones are located, is essential when it comes to planning a smooth trip.

Of course, the first thing to look for in a connecting city is breadth of destinations. Airports that connect different regions, especially fast-growing areas like Asia and South America, are the ones that will get you where you need to go. But you should also look for airports that offer lots of daily flights on key routes. “I want to know that if I miss a flight, there’s another one leaving a few hours later,” says Henry Harteveldt, vice president of airline/travel industry research for Forrester Research. “Frequency is key.”

Airport design is another factor to consider. “The best connecting airports have long, linear concourses,” says Harteveldt. “Straight lines between gates and wide hallways that allow people to move back and forth quickly.” He cites Atlanta, Denver and United’s Terminal 1 at O’Hare as connection-friendly terminals. And, he says train and monorail systems, like those at Dallas/Fort Worth, Frankfurt and Newark can help travelers navigate terminals that weren’t necessarily built with the connecting passenger in mind.

Co-location – grouping airlines from the same alliance near one another – is also important. The Star Alliance has implemented its Move Under One Roof program at Tokyo, Miami, Seoul and other key airports; while oneworld has co-located its operations at Madrid and Heathrow; and SkyTeam is also in the process of consolidating at Heathrow. “Moving our operations into the Star Alliance terminal at Narita has made a huge difference for our customers,” says ANA’s Damion Martin. “We’ve cut international connection times from 110 to 65 minutes.”

Services Make the Difference
According to Harriet Baskas, who writes about airports for msn.com and USA Today, great connecting cities also offer a wide range of amenities and services. For business travelers, that means power plugs and Internet access. “If you’re trying to get work done between flights, you don’t want to spend 20 minutes searching for a power plug,” she says. “And at this point, every airport should have wireless access, and it should be free.”

Baskas says travelers also want services that will help them unwind. “More and more airports now have massage chairs, gyms, hairdressers and even manicurists,” she says. “People are beginning to see layovers as an opportunity to take care of themselves.” This extends to cuisine as well. “Who wants to spend their layover sitting at a bar or eating bad food?” Baskas asks. “We want healthy, interesting choices.” She points to San Francisco’s International terminal – with restaurants that serve everything from udon noodles and sushi to free-range chicken and veggie burgers – as a good example.

Baskas says local flair is important. “Rather than the same old airport stores, I like to see local merchants selling products unique to the city I’m in.” She says there are shops in Minneapolis and Denver that sell local crafts, and the Munich airport offers a beer garden with its own signature brew.

The Best of the Best, Region by Region
The United States has plenty of connection cities, but only a handful are truly global. The largest is Atlanta, where Delta flies to 81 international destinations. American flies to 33 from Dallas-Fort Worth, and United close to 30 from Chicago O’Hare. For Latin American connections, American serves 52 destinations from Miami, and LAN offers extensive connections from Santiago. There are also gateway airports that offer international flights without operating as full-scale hubs – these include Seattle, Portland, Vancouver and Boston. But Harteveldt says the U.S. has fallen behind when it comes to building truly global hubs. “Post-9/11 security rules make it harder for U.S. airports to smoothly connect international passengers,” he explains. “They’re at a disadvantage.”

For years, Europe’s airports have served as the conduit between east and west, and the region is working hard to maintain this position. Despite the bad press, London Heathrow’s Terminal 5 offers quick connections, as well as world-class shopping and dining, and while Lufthansa continues to grow in Frankfurt, it’s also building up the highly rated Franz Josef Strauss airport in Munich. “It’s the fastest-growing hub in our network,” says Thomas Kleuhr, Lufthansa’s hub director in Europe. “We continue adding U.S. and Asian markets, and our new satellite wing opens in 2012.” At Paris’s Charles de Gaulle, Air France is focused on building connections to fast-growing Asian and Latin American markets. “It’s a huge priority for us,” says Bruno Matheu, executive vice president of marketing and network. “It allows us to better compete for high-value business travelers.”

Unbridled Growth
As Asia grows, so do its airports, many of which are booming as connecting cities. Singapore’s Changi Airport is an award winner and passenger favorite. “A Changi passenger can have a swim, rest at a hotel, or relax in an open-air garden, all without clearing customs,” says Singapore Airlines’ James Boyd. “It’s an incredibly convenient place to connect.” Other key connecting points in Asia include Seoul, Hong Kong and Tokyo’s Narita airport, which serves as a hub for Japan Airlines and ANA.

Epitomizing China’s new power and confidence is its sparkling new Terminal 3 at Beijing’s Capital International Airport. Hailed by authorities as the largest building in the world, T3 is an architectural wonder of glass and steel, natural light and a stunning golden roof. The new terminal should help alleviate the airport’s congestion problems – which are some of the worst in the world – and allow Air China to expand beyond its current 115 global destinations.

Airports in the Middle East are also booming. Since its founding in 2003, Abu Dhabi-based Etihad Airlines has grown to serve 46 global destinations, and Emirates now serves 100 cities from Dubai. Both airports are in the midst of massive construction projects that will add runways and sparkling new terminals. As connecting hubs, these cities benefit not only from rapidly growing home airlines, but from their key geographic position. “These airports are ideally placed to connect passengers traveling between Europe or the Americas to Asia,” Harteveldt says. “It’s new competition that should be of concern to European airports.” Says Nigel L. Page, senior vice president, commercial operations, the Americas, for Emirates (which has more new planes on order than any other airline), “With Dubai serving as Emirates’ hub, the airline’s primary goal is to utilize this one hub as a means to connect the traveler to any two cities around the world.”

Bigger Isn’t Always Better
Travelers looking to escape the congestion and chaos of big international hubs sometimes connect in smaller cities like Istanbul, Copenhagen, Vienna or Reykjavik. Hub operations at these airports tend to be housed in a single terminal, cutting connection times. “Copenhagen has wonderful shops,” USA Today’s Baskas says, “and you have the space and time to actually enjoy them.” At Reykjavik’s relaxed airport, passengers enjoy a giant model Viking ship, shops filled with local wares and a children’s play area. “If you can make the connections work, it’s a good option,” says Harteveldt of these secondary hubs. “But the tradeoff is fewer flights. Zurich and Geneva are lovely, but don’t take you to as many places.”

The new Open Skies agreement, which allows European and U.S. airlines to fly between any two cities in the U.S. and Europe, is giving passengers a whole new range of options. Air France recently launched service between Los Angeles and London Heathrow, while British Airways’ new OpenSkies subsidiary will serve point-to-point routes including JFK to Paris-Orly and Brussels, bypassing hubs altogether. “It allows us to go after new opportunities where we see them,” says Air France’s VP of Marketing Paul Roux of Open Skies, but Forrester’s Harteveldt isn’t so sure these new routes will take off. “Open Skies could change the hub dynamic,” he says, “but the big question mark is oil. New routes that looked attractive when oil was $90 a barrel might not work $125 a barrel. And when airlines cut back, point-to-point flying is usually the first to go.”

At the end of the day, it may be oil that has the greatest impact on connecting cities in the future. Airlines have already begun trimming flights, and some analysts anticipate much deeper cuts as the industry struggles to deal with pricey fuel. And while that might mean fewer passengers racing through crowded hubs, it also means fewer options for business travelers on the go.

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