Lufthansa officials have merely indicated that beginning in 2008 they may
start operating long haul flights that do not originate from one of the two hub airports, FRA
. Several airports were named as potential candidates, such as Hamburg, Stuttgart, Dusseldorf, and, IIRC, even Hanover (!) was mentioned. There was absolutely no indication as to whether any plans had been finalized yet nor if the above list was exclusive. Being somewhat familiar with German aviation, I feel inclined to predict that it is not. As a matter of fact, just today Lufthansa hinted at the possibility of intercontinental flights out of BBI
, Berlin's future airport, where the fragmented air traffic of all three fields will be consolidated in 2011. So, that brings the above list to five candidates already. I believe that a sixth candidate, the name of which has not even been dropped yet, may win the race, and that would be Cologne, just 30 miles south of DUS
, near the southern border of the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, the most populous one in Germany.
I firmly believe that Lufthansa must pay more attention to the Rhine-Ruhr area (named after the two largest rivers in that area). Prior to German reunification it used to be that one third (!) of the passenger volume at FRA
originated in North Rhine-Westphalia. Since then the relative numbers may have changed a little due to the additional traffic from eastern Germany. However, concerning the Rhine-Ruhr area, Lufthansa must be feeling the pinch from other airlines that have launched a substantial number of direct flights in that region, notably Delta, Northwest, LTU and Air Berlin in DUS
, and Continental, Germanwings and TUIfly (formerly Hapag Lloyd). In addition there is Easyjet in Dortmund, whereas the impact from Ryanair in Weeze is probaly negligible. So on the one side, the air is getting thinner for Lufthansa in there biggest O&D market, and on top of that, Lufthansa has no ability to grow at their home base in FRA
because of the limited availability of slots. A new runway has been planned for the past eight years, but two years after the originally planned opening date, construction has not even begun. God only knows, if it ever will. There doesn't seem to be an end in sight to all the legal battles. And if it does, it will come with a hefty price to pay: a pretty much complete curfew affecting flights between 11 pm and 5 am. This would potentially cripple Lufthansa's all-cargo ops at FRA
The question is how should Lufthansa go about it. I do not believe that any single airport in Germany has the potential to generate enough passenger volume for for scheduled long-haul flights with reasonable frequency without a considerable amount of connecting traffic. So that's something that has to be factored in, and that's were the problem lies with DUS
: while Lufthansa has a sizable operation there, the flights are not coordinated to come and go in banks, which would make it rather difficult for the scheduling department to generate a good number of possible connections with acceptable transfer times. And because of the slot constraints at DUS
, which also operates near capacity, Lufthansa will not be able to tweak the schedule for optimization.
Again, what should they do? Usually, airline managers are very predictable. I predict that Lufthansa will do the same as they did before in 1989, that is recreate the West Hub ("Drehkreuz West") in Cologne. Back in 1989, the situation was quite similar: LH
had run out of space at FRA
(which was still a single runway operation at that time), and had to look for a new growth opportunity, and came across that almost dormant airport just 10 miles away from their corporate headquarters, in a city almost twice the size of DUS
, (and the second biggest airport in pre-war Germany).
So they brought in a number of regional aircraft, some new main line flights and new transatlantic flights to Newark and DC (I believe it was Baltimore, actually. Correct me if I'm wrong). It had a very successful start, and then traffic started to dwindle in the wake of the PA103 bombing and the war in the Gulf, which set off a world aviation crisis. Then Lufthansa retracted to FRA
once again ... high tide ... low tide. What happened then was that Munich's new airport opened, and Lufthansa could simply not afford not to utilize that brand-new, state-of-the-art facility. Else, someone else would have jumped on the opportunity, and keeping competitors at bay or eliminating them altogether has always been Lufthansa's supreme directive. Not unlike American Airlines, I might say (and a nasty derogative comes to my mind, when I think about comparing the two ... - nuff said).
So now that Lufthansa got Munich going, FRA
are full again, they may very well pick up, where they left off in the early nineties - in Cologne. And Cologne is much better suited now for connecting traffic than it was in 1989. It's original design was similar to MCI
, with decentralized security check lines at each individual gate, and next to nil in terms of amenities airside. It's purpose was basically to serve local traffic only. So it wasn't a surprise that the west hub did not catch on immediately. However things have changed now. The airport has seen dramatic expansion and makeover in recent years, designed by Helmut Jahn, the famed designer of my beloved United terminal in Chi-town. Security is now centralized, and an array of new shops and restaurants have been added airside, so that passengers won't get bored while waiting for a connecting flight. On top of that, CGN
now has a direct high-speed rail link, connecting the airport with FRA
in less than an hour. Overall, the railroad station has significantly increased the catchment area of CGN
. And the improvements have not gone unnoticed. In recent years CGN
has been the fastest growing major airport in Germany. In 1989, when LH
first attempted to install a mini-hub there the annual passenger numbers were in the range of three million. This year, it's going to be close to eleven million, and no end of the growth spurt inside. And note that this is all O&D traffic, since none of the major airlines there offer connections via CGN
So, there are a number of reasons for Lufthansa to once again consider Cologne. But there is also some indication that it may actually happen, and that is a flurry of rather unexpected construction activity at CGN
, all surrounding Lufthansa's operations there: Lufthansa is in the middle of relocating to the C-satellite of Terminal One, basically trading spaces with its low-cost affiliate Germanwings. They are sinking two million euros in two new space age style lounges, one each for business and first and to modernize the gate area (which had just been redone five years ago, when Germanwings moved in there). Meanwhile, the airport authority is working on doubling the number of security check lanes this there from ten to twenty-two. Does Continental even have that many at Newark?). They are also expanding the gate area in the C-satellite, which will result in a seamless airside connection to the widebody gates at Terminal Two. When this construction is complete, Lufthansa will have as much, if not more gate space in CGN
than in DUS
. On top of that, construction is about to begin for a new 110,000 sq ft freight hall. One thing I can assure you that the CGN
airport managers are rather frugal. They would not spend this money so soon, if they did not see the immediate need for a significant increase in terminal capacity, so something's brewing there. It cannot be explained with the steady, predictable growth generated by Germanwings and TUIfly.
What I see as a plausible scenario is a significant increase mostly in LH
regional jet operations, with a focus on routes that are to thin for the high-capacity jets of LCCs, which typically seat 150-180. There have been a number of routes that were launched by the CGN
-based LCCs and failed after a short time, however they should easily generate a sufficient number of passengers to operate an RJ
profitably. I'm thinking of various routes to Scandinavia, Eastern Europe, Italy, and France. Nuremberg and Geneva recently dropped off Cologne's radar screen, when the independent regional airline EAE ceased operations, so these two cities would also be good candidates. At this point in time CGN
has the advantage of not being slot-restricted at all. I'd say that the runways are probably at 30% of their actual capacity at best, so all these flights could be coordinated in banks to provide perfect connections to a handful of long-haul destinations. I'm not sure, if Lufthansa would be well-advised to go head on head against Continental on a CGN
-NYC route. I'd like to see them connect the area with the Star hubs in North America, plus maybe Los Angeles and possibly the Star hubs in Asia. That would be a good start. And it would work. At least as good as in DUS
, probably better. Continental operated with an average LF
of almost 90% in June. That's evidence that CGN
does have the potential to support this type of routes. Besides, Lufthansa can haul a maximum amount of belly cargo from CGN
, whereas in DUS
they would be dealing with weight penalties all the time because of the shorter runway there. CGN
has the potential to grow into a satellite hub for Frankfurt. Passengers could even be shuffled back and forth quickly and efficiently in case of missed connections. If this pans out, Lufthansa might even be tempted to forego the additional runway and avoid the looming curfew. With the very limited growth opportunities in DUS
, this would not even be an option. And chances are that in the meantime someone else would jump on the opportunity in CGN
. We'll see. Time will tell.