Is Geneva airport a victim of its own success?

Geneva airport is carrying out major transformation work to cope with soaring numbers of passengers Keystone

Geneva airport, with its one runway and soaring passenger figures, must re-think its future or risk reaching saturation point by 2012, warns a Swiss think tank.

This content was published on May 30, 2008 - 16:39

With the local economy booming, the future of the international airport is currently a hot topic. On Thursday cantons Geneva and Vaud agreed to examine ways of co-financing urgent supra-regional development projects, including the airport.

According to its 2007 annual report published earlier in the week, the airport is currently in excellent health, with higher profits and a 9.5 per cent increase in passengers to 10.8 million.

To cope with more travellers, the airport is currently undergoing a major transformation due to be completed by 2011. This includes the extension of the main terminal, a new restaurant, modern security checkpoints and a new business plane hanger and will be followed by a second phase, involving the construction of new departure lounges.

"All these investments allow us to catch up in terms of modernisation work and to absorb the growth in the number of passengers," said airport president François Longchamp at a press conference on Tuesday. "But they do not ensure the airport's long term future."

According to Xavier Comtesse, of the country's leading think tank Avenir Suisse, projections of recent passenger growth figures indicate that the airport will become congested from 2012 onwards when it reaches the 15 million barrier – considered the limit for an airport with a single runway.

"Rising oil prices may slow the pace of growth and the Lake Geneva economy might become less competitive, but one day or later, whether in five or ten years, a solution must be found for the airport," he told swissinfo.

Second runway?

While some people argue a second runway is Geneva's only way forward, Longchamp rejects this proposal.

"Our weakness is not the fact that we've only got one runway; it's the way passengers are looked after, the transfers and baggage-handling," he said, adding that other airports with a bigger capacity than Geneva make do with one runway.

With the airport's close proximity to the city centre, huge pressure for land around Geneva, and the lengthy process needed to push through development zone plans, a second runway seems highly unlikely.

Robert Deillon, the airport's director, rejected Comtesse's projections and felt the airport still had room for manoeuvre.

"It certainly has its limits, but it's not an airport without a future," he told French language Swiss radio.

Regional solutions

Other solutions being explored are regional collaborations with Annecy airport in France and Payerne military-civilian airport, halfway between Geneva and the capital, Bern.

At the end of December a new stretch of motorway between Geneva and Annecy will reduce travel time to 20 minutes. But the small airport, which currently handles 64,000 passengers per year and is enjoying a boom in business aviation, may not be the answer to all Geneva's problems, Roland Pascal, of the body which owns the airport, told Le Temps newspaper.

"Our capacity is limited as the 1,640-metre runway cannot be extended, which prevents planes with over 100 seats from landing. As for private planes, we can of course increase the number, but this has to be done properly as our airport is in an urban area with major environmental constraints," he explained.

At the end of December 2007, the Swiss government authorised Payerne military airport to open to civilian flights. But there are strict limitations on the number of private jet and commercial flights - 8,400 per year – due to local concern over noise pollution.

"The local mayor is against," said Comtesse. "He wants to develop the airport as a business, but that's all. He wants industry but without aeroplanes."

Stephane Maillard, who is responsible for the civilian development of the airport, is certain Payerne will not become an international airport in the near future.

"Our aim is not to serve as a complementary base for Geneva airport. We want to develop the region and create jobs connected to the air industry. The civilian air movements are uniquely to attract companies that plan to invest," he said.

In the medium term Comtesse believes Geneva will expand into a "mixed" international structure.

"Three solutions are possible: Geneva-Annecy or Geneva-Payerne - with Geneva still as the main airport; Geneva with a second runway, which seems improbable. But I think we'll end up with a mixed solution – Geneva, Annecy and Payerne," he said.

"But the debate has only just started and I'm sure that things will evolve quite considerably."

swissinfo, Simon Bradley in Geneva

More passengers

The number of travellers and flights in Switzerland has risen steadily in recent years, encouraged by favourable economic conditions. This is despite the terrorist attacks on the United States in 2001.

Between 2002 and 2006 the total rose by around 16 per cent, from 29 million to 34 million.

According to the Federal Aviation Office, the total number of passengers for Zurich airport will rise from 19 million to 40 million by 2030.

Capacity should be pushed to its limit by around 2030, according to the office.

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Big airports

The main Swiss airports will be investing or have invested in their infrastructure.

Zurich intends to spend SFr300 million ($287.5 million)in the next few years to improve Terminal B. Also planned are 4,500m² of shopping areas and new hotels.

At Geneva, the bill will be around SFr60 million. Around 5,000m² of extra space (commercial, check-in desks, baggage areas) will be added by 2011.

Basel's EuroAirport has been implementing its infrastructure plan since 1998, which should total around SFr380 million.

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