We sat down with Geneva Airport’s CEO, André Schneider, to talk about its unique place in the world of aviation and how he’s preparing the airport and paving the way for sustainable aviation for the next 100 years.

2020 marked an important milestone for Geneva Airport – its 100th anniversary. It also marked the beginning of the industry’s downturn due to the pandemic. What are the top priorities for Geneva Airport as the industry recovers?

Our 100th anniversary was an amazing milestone, but just as we were ready to celebrate it, the pandemic arrived and everything came to a halt. We had to make sure that as well as celebrating the 100 years we’ve had, we took the right steps to ensure the airport would be here for the next 100 years as well.

In terms of priorities, that didn’t mean a lot had to change. Our desire to ensure the long-term sustainability of the airport, both against sustainable development goals and adaptation to meet the demands of passengers, remained; and the need to upgrade some of our old buildings, which albeit weren’t quite 100 years old would still require an update to serve the evolving needs of our society today! That need was still there. The pandemic simply crystallized our focus where we developed an overarching objective to manage our way through – and out of – the crisis.

We viewed our priorities through this overarching aim, reviewing and adjusting our goals as needed – but never giving up on them. For example, we had to reduce our investment programme, but we did it in reviewing our long-term investment plan – to make sure that whatever we reduce will not cause us problems down the road.

Perhaps most importantly, we have been able to maintain a majority of our staff – which means now, as we come out of this difficult time, our staff is ready to deliver a great passenger experience and support our customers and partners.

The covid pandemic highlighted the need to increase airports’ business resilience with non-core revenues such as air cargo or real estate. Does Geneva Airport incorporate this in its strategy?

Geneva Airport is in quite a unique situation on this front. We’re very much an urban airport, we’re about seven minutes from the city centre – so you can be in the city and still be in the airport! That means we can’t rely on big real estate developments, and albeit we have a considerable demand for cargo we have cargo only planes limited to FedEx and DHL. Which meant that we had very little cargo capacity during the crisis given the very much reduced passenger travel with much less planes available to transport the cargo in their bellies.

But that doesn’t mean we don’t need to diversify. To ensure business resilience, our focus is on becoming more agile – so we can react and adapt at speed to big changes, like the pandemic, reducing costs quickly through planned measures, without taking drastic measures such as mass redundancies.

Is innovation or automation going to be important to achieving that agility?

Absolutely – and we are currently working on both automation and innovation. For us, it’s important that any innovations we introduce improve customer service and contribute to sustainable aviation at the same time. For example, we were the first airport to deploy a standard 3 hand-baggage scanners – which means passengers don’t have to unpack anything when going through security. The faster security check improves passenger experience and at the same time, enables us to manage the staff to passenger ratio.

We are also working on automation of check-in – as 90% of our passengers are going towards European destinations, an important part of them flying back and forth in one day. So we have lots of people who actually don't do check-in at the check-in desk - they come in with their boarding pass and just walk through. Again, we have a unique viewpoint on these things, because we cater to a niche market.

While we’re certainly getting innovative with our new terminal building, which has to be built almost on the same spot as the existing one – innovation for us is mainly about honing our excellent customer service and providing an even greater level of passenger experience.

Increasing customer demands present new challenges for airports. What are some of the ways in which Geneva Airport enhances passenger experience?

As I mentioned earlier, a lot of our buildings are quite old. The main passenger buildings were inaugurated in 1968. Airport security, check-in, passport control – none of these things today look like they did in 1968 – so we clearly have to adapt. When we do that, we want to go for the latest technology, to ensure it can last 50 years or more itself and provide a great service for our customers.

As a smaller airport, we do have a real advantage in delivering a great passenger experience because of the short distances between the check-in and departure gate. When you enter the airport, you can almost see where you’re going to end up, which is quite special.

 

So we’re all about maintaining this quality – through infrastructure or innovation – to ensure that passengers can move seamlessly from terminal to departure gate as quickly as possible (between 30-60 minutes).

 

Elsewhere, we’re currently piloting a process where you can order food wherever you are in the airport and have it delivered to you. It’s like having UberEats in the airport – and that’s driven by what we can do within our smaller set-up; we believe you should be able to do almost everything everywhere.

 

And finally, we work closely with the airlines to really adapt to what they offer passengers – because they have their own way of looking at passengers which might not be the same for every airline.

How does Geneva Airport ensure it’s developing in a sustainable way?

First of all, we have a very clear ambition to achieve net-zero by 2050. We actually have an implementation plan which will allow us to reach this target by 2037/2038 – and this is being actively implemented as we speak.

Some of the main elements of achieving this for us are firstly, electrifying the traffic on the airside. We have replaced the majority of our buses with electric buses and we're upgrading the rest at the moment. If any operator on the platform is reinvesting in a vehicle, we co-finance the difference in price to go electric.

As well as this, for the last eight or nine years, every new building is producing more energy than it consumes. Already our new East Pier just came into operation, and it’s equipped with 7,000 square meters of solar panels and over 100 geothermal probes – and it will run on heat pumps using water from the lake. We will also replace all the heating and cooling with such heat pumps. That's a major project that will realistically reduce our CO2 emissions by over 60%.

We have been very much involved with the Swiss aviation industry leaders, the other airports, and also some other companies, like airlines and business aviation, and universities to actually define a road map to net zero in 2050 for the whole industry, and we're currently starting to implement that. We are really pushing that in parallel so that we can benefit from the collective efforts of the Swiss aviation industry.

We will also start now to reward full CO2 offset schemes. Later on, we’ll go the extra mile, beyond legal obligations, and look into SAF schemes (Sustainable Aviation Fuel). So we believe that we can deliver, with the industry, net-zero by 2050 – not only in our own actions but by supporting our partners by co-financing or incentivising.

Digitalisation and innovation are driving the change in the aviation industry. How is Geneva Airport preparing for the future?

Digitalisation will have a massive impact on what we do in the future. We have some major projects in the pipeline – for example by 2030, we will replace our ATC tower with a virtual tower – but I think for us, data has a big part to play in it all. We have invested in innovative and detailed people flows measurement solution – which we want to use to improve or change our operations.

It ties into our position as a smaller airport, with little space – we’re constantly testing new technologies and innovations to see if there are ways, we can improve our passenger experience or the experience of our airline partners.

If I come back to what we discussed at the start of this conversation, our goals and aims haven’t changed, but we’ve had to be smarter in the face of reduced investment due to the pandemic. So for example, we’ve been building a strategic infrastructure plan – and we’ve revised this two or three times during the crisis to sharpen it and reflect the current situation.

NACO have been an indispensable part of that journey. We do intensive forecasting on passenger numbers ourselves and they analysed it for us – to be sure our methodology isn’t missing anything. From this kind of actionable insights with a view on strategic planning, we’ve built a strong sense of what we need to do, when we need to do it, and how we go about doing it – giving us an integrated view of all of our work.

This approach led us to our project with NACO – developing a Terminal Ambition Plan and then translating it into a tangible plan, which is currently in the making.

 

Want to get more insights into the Terminal Ambition Plan? Discover more about the project here