What a difference a day makes. At the beginning of 2008, Milan Malpensa Airport (MXP) was an integral part of Alitalia’s operations and enjoyed the status of a transit hub for much of its long-haul network.
But all that changed on April 1, when the national carrier dehubbed from MXP, carrying out a cull of its transit routes and scrapping 886 of its 1,238 weekly flights from the airport as it restructured to focus on serving its core markets from Rome.
That decision meant that in one fell swoop the north Italian gateway lost some 25% of its traffic and more than one third of its lucrative intercontinental routes, and meant a major rethink of the airport’s route development plans.
“This policy cost the national airline a loss of 10 million passengers in that first year,” says David Crognaletti, director of commercial aviation for Malpensa operator, Società Enti Aeroportuali (SEA).
Add to this the first stirrings of the global economic crisis and you had a very challenging environment in which to remarket an airport.
“It was a very hard blow for us because Alitalia was also taking care of many of the strategic aspects of our route network, therefore we were forced to swiftly change our skin and start facing new challenges – the implementation of services, number of flights, finding and developing new routes. Overnight, we had to reconsider all our strategies from scratch,” explains Crognaletti.
But where to start? First SEA turned to one of the region’s intrinsic strengths – its position as a major European centre for business, banking and fashion.
As the home of many of Italy’s major corporations, including the Unicredit banking group, Prada and Dolce & Gabbana, not to mention the Borsa Italiana, Italy’s main stock exchange, the city offered a major enticement for new carriers looking to tap high-yield business traffic.
Figures from the European Union reveal Milan and its surrounding region of Lombardy enjoyed the second highest GDP per capita of any region in Italy in 2008.
In 2011, the New York Times voted Milan as one of the top five places not to be missed: a destination rich in both culture and events; the most important artists in the world include Milan in their tours, so it was absolutely necessary to offer a full package, and one that is up to the task.
“In Italy, Milan is the city par excellence for business. It is the place where all the biggest corporations have branches and so, accordingly, we started to get in touch with them, from the big companies right through to the SMEs,” Crognaletti explains.
“We listened to their needs and in a few years we have achieved very impressive results,” he says. “Today we offer daily flights to Shanghai and Beijing; as for the Middle and Far East routes, we are the leaders in Europe; we fly daily to Hong Kong, Japan, Thailand, Singapore, South Korea; and we are the only Italian airport with a daily flight to New Delhi in India, after signing a partnership with Jet Airways. These are remarkable results in such a short space of time.”
While the future remains uncertain, Malpensa certainly seems to have turned a corner.
In 2011, eight new passenger and all-cargo carriers chose Malpensa: Gulf Air, Ethiopian Airlines, Biman Bangladesh, Air Europa, transavia.com, Silk Way Airlines, Jade Cargo International and Africa West Airlines.
With carriers including Emirates also adding new frequencies, the airport expanded its international links; almost 180 additional flights were introduced in 2011, of which about 30 were seasonal.
A key change was Milan redefining itself as an O&D destination with a strong emphasis on business traffic and the airport has sought to carve out a new niche for itself among its fellow SEA airports of Linate and Bergamo-Orio al Serio Airport.
While Linate operates some international routes, they are all within Europe, while Bergamo operates as a base for Ryanair and seasonal charter or scheduled flights.
“Airlines are persuaded through numbers, analysis and financial forecasts: the appeal derived from the prestige of the destination you are presenting to them is not the key to their approval anymore. This is how Milan has made its leap forward in these last four years,” Crognaletti candidly explains.
Today, MXP is served by a broad range of carriers from full service airlines, such as Air China, American Airlines, Emirates and Etihad, to low-cost carriers operating out of Terminal 2, such as Vueling and Air One, and is a major base for easyJet, which is helping to fill the vacuum left by the departure of Alitalia.
“Malpensa has been fulfilling the needs of any type of traveller since 2008; in just four years Malpensa has achieved the highest passenger figures for any European airport which does not serve a hub carrier,” states Crognaletti.
And some commentators believe there is far more potential to grow.
“North Italy provides the business hub for the country, Milan could support more additional long-haul flights, certainly more than Rome, which is driven by tourism and leisure. Yields are higher and Malpensa has the facilities in place to handle long-haul operations.” says John Strickland, director of JLS Consulting.
Indeed, MXP welcomed some 19.2 million in 2011, a 1.8% increase on 2010, according to figures from ACI Europe, and although it still faces a very challenging environment, it remains the second busiest airport in Italy after Rome Fiumicino.
“It was, and still is, a tough job,” says Crognaletti. “We worked a lot, travelling the world over meeting the carriers in their home countries; we showed them figures that displayed the Milan catchment area as a great business opportunity, and so it was.”
Meanwhile, looking at the figures (see chart), MXP’s other major strength is that it is one of Europe’s biggest cargo airports, with some 450,000 tonnes of airfreight processed per annum. And thanks to its location, MXP can play a key strategic role for both business and tourist traffic.
The airport’s Terminal 1 is just 20 miles from the centre of Milan and close to the Italian speaking Ticino region of Switzerland, while to the north are the key tourism attractions of Italy’s Como and Maggiore lakes.
Over the last few years, SEA has worked closely with Trenitalia, the Italian public railway company, and Autostrade per l’Italia, the concessionaire that manages Italy’s toll motorways to offer convenient access to the airport.
“We have 134 daily trains taking travellers from the city railway stations of Milan Cadorna and Milan Central Station, in the heart of the city, to Malpensa in 30 minutes,” explains Crognaletti.
“We also have trains to Switzerland and other major towns in northern Italy. During all our development planning of the last five years, accessibility was our mantra.”
Thanks to Italy’s high-speed rail network, travelling times between Milan and Turin have been reduced drastically, while a dedicated rail station at Terminal 1 gives passengers the choice of reaching Milan with two rail operators – the Malpensa Express and Trenitalia.
Thanks to these improvements, Malpensa is no longer known as a difficult airport to get to – today it has a reputation for being easy-to-reach from the main northern Italian cities and bordering countries.
So what are MXP’s future development plans? Despite the country’s political and economic crisis, local opposition to expansion and the fact that Milan’s city council would like to sell more shares of SEA to invest in other directions, the operator has many projects in the pipeline.
It will start with the opening of a third terminal and then continue with the construction of a third runway.
Investment in the new terminal, which will be funded by SEA, is expected to reach €750 million from 2012-2016, while a further €1.5 billion will be invested in infrastructure up to 2030.
Meanwhile, SEA is pursuing new innovative travel solutions for passengers, such as ViaMilano – a self-hubbing project which has created connections between overseas legacy carriers and LCCs so as to capitalise on their respective capacity, and overcome the lack of a traditional hubbing carrier.
But just before leaving Cragnoletti adds: “We have not talked about the environment? Malpensa has achieved carbon neutral status in ACI Europe’s Carbon Accreditation scheme because of its low CO2 impact. We even offer electric car services to get to Milan!”
This article features in Routes News 2012 Issue 2