Thursday, August 12, 2010

Could the New airBaltic Terminal Become the First True Low-Cost Terminal?

Everyone who had air-traveled at least once had got familiar with the traditional order at airport: check-in, baggage drop, security, passport control, boarding, luggage reclaim and so on. But is it really the most appropriate, easiest and cheapest way to get people and their bags on and off the planes? There must be some more up-to-date model because the current system has strong roots in early luxury air travel when traveler numbers were low, ticked prices unaffordable for general public and service standards high.
Current terminal at Riga airport is now considerably crowded at peak times as airBaltic has created a local hub. All of the earlier expansion proposals came from airport itself and were some type of traditional glamorous ‘air-travel temples’ spread all over the world. The project did not move on and airBaltic took over the initiative of building a terminal for 7-8 million annual passengers with expansion possibilities to capacity of 14 million passengers. Terminal must be low cost (~EUR 95m) and satisfy needs of airBaltic. Here come my ideas for the terminal:

Self-Service Luggage Handling
The cheapest and most obvious way to handle luggage is to put this duty on the owner. This means no traditional luggage drop when entering the terminal but one must bring his suitcases as far as the aircraft and put it in trolley for loading onto aircraft. Arriving bags are delivered right near the aircraft and anyone can take them without any delays. Of course, all bags must comply with hand luggage safety standards so no sharp items or liquids can be carried. If all this is introduced luggage handing will cost less so most of restrictions and fees actually could be eliminated.
Problems start with other airports in airBaltic network – the arriving bags at Riga must be cleared as hand luggage not as checked-in luggage so gate baggage drop must be applied for everyone and several airports may not find it acceptable. Luggage transfers from traditional carriers to BT would be impossible and travelers would have to pick-up the bags from reclaim belt and go trough security again. Alternatively such type of luggage could be considered as air cargo and delivered at cargo facilities at RIX (with significantly longer delivery time).
Keeping the Terminal Simple
As terminal would not have a traditional baggage handling system, all the facilities can be located in single floor; there would be no need for check-in counters. Single floor and gate baggage drop don’t go well together with jetbridges so walk and bus gates are the only reasonable option also saving time.
New passenger oriented cargo and mail service must be developed for prohibited items in hand luggage. Sharp items and liquids could be delivered to destination with special mail service (optionally connected to traditional mail). The difference from current checked-in luggage would be earlier check-in times or later deliveries (booth in special offices), smaller item size. These items would not be attached to the particular flight where the owner flies but could be delivered to destination also earlier or later. The packages can be delivered to traveler’s preferred post office as regular mail so avoiding the need of make companies own post offices at all stations.

Maybe this all sound too crazy but just imagine how big savings could give significant airport cost reduction at hub airport for hub and spoke model airline. Hub model was introduced because it is cheaper than point-to-point model; it is multiple times easier to connect each node with one hub rather than each node with all of the others. Paradoxically European point-to-point LCC now can offer cheaper tickets with significantly more expensive network. Hub airlines can blame only themselves for high airport costs coming from starchitect terminals, luggage handling systems, jetbriges and 100m spans over check-in halls.