Each year, over 3 billion passengers pass through each of the world’s airports, all of them following what is essentially the same path to get from the curb to their gate. That path from the check-in desk to aircraft is the one every passenger knows and is filled with security checkpoints, shopping opportunities and other amenities to keep travelers busy until they can board their aircraft.
There are approximately 5,000 public airports in the U.S., according to the FAA. That is just under a third of all airports around the world, a number which, according to Airports Council International, sits at around 17,000. Around the world, however, airports have taken different approaches than the U.S.—some better than others—to get the passenger from the ground to the air.
The Gate Assignment
After walking through security in just about any airport in Europe and dozens of countries around the world, you will walk up to the board labeled “Departures” and will see the flights arranged by takeoff time rather than destination. As you look down the list, you’ll come to a point where every flight number, destination city, and time are followed by the words “Gate opens” followed by a time.
Depending on the airport, specific flights will not be assigned gates until anywhere from a couple hours to 30 minutes before departure, but almost always after the inbound aircraft has arrived. That is, of course, in contrast to the U.S. system, where most airlines tell passengers their gate days in advance only to change it every so often in the hours leading up to the flight.
But not only does the system used outside of the U.S. ensure passengers aren’t sent across the airport in the case of a gate change—though some last-minute movements are unavoidable—airports also reap benefits from enacting the system.
In the U.S., the post-security ritual is the same for most, taking passengers directly to their assigned gate. Of course, the walk generally allows travelers a few minutes to grab food or take a look inside a store or two, but not much else. But if passengers don’t have a gate they can go to, only to sit and wait until boarding, they are forced to wait in a more central area, and this is where airports have capitalized.
Airports around the world from London to Dubai and beyond have set-up large central hubs in their terminals filled with restaurants, duty-free shopping, seating and more, providing passengers a place to wait—but more importantly, a place to spend money during their time in the terminal.
It may sound cynical, as if airports outside of the U.S. are only in it for the profit, but the business model makes sense and allows airports to make extra revenue to use for improvements. If those passengers that would otherwise go straight to the gate and wait have the time to shop, and airports have the ability to take advantage of that, they should.
This would be especially helpful in the U.S., as airports could become more profitable or at least minimize the burden they place on the pocketbooks of taxpayers by financing some of their own costs.
Space is at a premium for many airports across the world and nowhere is this more apparent than in Europe. With a limited number of check-in counters, gates, runways and ramp, the best way for airports to utilize what they have is to force airlines to share.
Across the U.S., carriers of all sizes stake their claims at airports both large and small by permanently renting out gate space, paying the airports to hold a gate long-term. But across Europe, this is largely not the case. Of course, carriers with large presences at certain airports—British Airways in London or Swiss in Zurich—will hold certain gates, but the others are truly up for grabs. This helps so that gates don’t sit empty for hours on end while another flight waits to grab one of its carrier’s own gates, particularly when flight delays strike.
Some U.S. airports have already taken note, such as Detroit Metropolitan Airport, who’s North Terminal includes gates free of airline branding, only logos to be added on a large screen at each gate when a particular airline is using the gate.
Both airport models certainly have their advantages, especially when you consider travelers that see one model more than the other will likely be more averse to such a huge change in the airport experience.
But for airports, the benefits of what has become the “European model” are clear. Airports not only have the ability to make more money but, in theory, they could take the space they already have and add capacity and revenue with the more efficient and effective setup from across the pond.
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