Tuesday, June 20, 2017
What happens when a country's too small for an airport?
By Miquel Ros
Cable News Network (CNN)
(CNN) — You can fit 14 countries the size of Monaco inside the 2,900-hectare grounds of Dubai International Airport. So how does a microstate like the tiny Mediterranean principality compete with the big players on the aviation stage?
While the world's smallest countries trace their roots back to political arrangements from the era of horseback travel, airports are in constant need of new land to satiate the ever-growing demand for air travel.
How are the world's smallest nations coping with the requirements of modern aviation, when even their combined areas are dwarfed by your average regional airport?
Let's have a look at how some of Europe's microstates are coping.
With an area of under half a square kilometer (0.17 square miles), Vatican City is the world's smallest sovereign state by area.
Even if it was a little bigger, its location smack in the center of Rome would make any airport designs unfeasible.
This doesn't mean the Vatican is devoid of air links, though.
In fact, one of the bastions of the ancient Leonine Wall is currently used as a helipad and, while the Pope doesn't have his own aircraft, the Italian Air Force provides the helicopters for Papal flights in and out of the Vatican.
When it comes to overseas trips, the Pope and his entourage usually take Italy's flag carrier Alitalia -- on the outbound leg, at least. It's become a sort of a tradition that the airline of the host country will fly the Pope back to Rome on the return journey.
Nice Côte d'Azur Airport is regularly voted one of the world's most scenic airport approaches.
With hardly any stretch of flat land and every single square inch of its territory commanding sky-high prices, the second-smallest country in the world is notoriously unsuited to any fixed-wing aircraft operations.
Luckily for the jet-setting crowd that frequent the glamorous principality, Nice Cote d'Azur International Airport, a convenient gateway to many international destinations, is just a helicopter ride away, on French territory.
Helicopters departures every hour in each direction. Many are registered in Monaco, making up the principality's own air fleet.
Aside from the views of France's glittering Mediterranean coast, perks of the service in include a direct transfer onto onward flights. And, while not exactly a budget service -- around 150 euros ($168), it's not that far off taxi fares for the same journey.
The result is that it attracts a more diverse crowd than you might imagine.
"Although quite a few of our clients have private jets waiting, over 90% of traffic connects with regular commercial flights. We have agreements with a number of airlines, including the likes of Air France, KLM... and also easyJet," says Gilbert Schweitzer, CEO of Monacair, one of the companies operating the Monaco-Nice helicopter shuttle.
Monaco-based helicopters also provide on-demand services to other playgrounds of the rich and famous, such as St.Tropez and, in winter, Courchevel.
They also service the many super-yachts that frequent the nearby waters. "We have former military pilots that are qualified to land on the deck of large leisure boats", says Schweitzer.
San Marino: Not much in the way of flat surfaces.
Surrounded on all sides by Italian territory, the Most Serene Republic of San Marino takes pride in being, allegedly, the oldest nation on Earth in continuous existence, dating all the way back to the third century.
The topography of this ancient republic centered on the rocky slopes of Mount Titano does not lend itself easily to aeronautical activities. Nevertheless, authorities in San Marino have not given up.
The country has an active aircraft registry, which uses the prefix T7 and is open to aircraft operators from around the world, provided they comply with a number of conditions.
Despite the absence of an airport, San Marino's registration has generated quite some interest in the aviation industry, and it's even attracted some executive jet owners and commercial airliners.
On a separate initiative, the Republic's government has also explored the possibility of acquiring some usage rights at Rimini's Federico Fellini airport, which serves a nearby resort town on Italy's Adriatic coast, turning it, de facto, into San Marino's airport too.
Andorra-La Seu d'Urgell Airport: In Spain, but serving Andorra.
The Principality of Andorra shares two peculiarities with San Marino. They both have two active heads of state -- the only countries in the world to do so.
And they also are reliant on airport gateways that lie next to their borders, yet beyond them.
Andorra's location, nestled right in the middle of the Pyrenees mountain range, means tourism is key to its economy. Anything that helps bring skiers to its slopes is seen as strategic.
When the construction of an altiport -- an aerodrome in mountainous terrain --was discarded due to technical issues, the obvious alternative was to turn La Seu d'Urgell Airport, just across the border in Spain, into Andorra's air gateway.
This airport, crowning a flat-top hill, had seen little action since regular scheduled flights to Barcelona were abandoned in the early 1980s. However, this might about to change, after the recent completion of a renovation program.
Don't expect big crowds just yet, though. Operational constraints, dictated by the local topography and runway length, restrict operations to aircraft the size of the 27-meter ATR turboprop. However, this may be just enough to bring the airport back to life.
"Plenty of people come to ski to this area from afar. Many of them come by bus and in this context, charter flights can provide a very competitive alternative," explains Jordi Candela, director of Aeroports de Catalunya, the government body that manages the airport. "There is clearly a market opportunity to capture some of this traffic."
Two separate airline startups, aptly named Andorra Airlines and Air Andorra, have launched with the stated aim of serving this market, but none of them has managed to start operations yet.
It remains to be seen whether the market is large enough to sustain regular operations, let alone two competing airlines.
The most famous passenger to have used Andorra-La Seu d'Urgell Airport remains Elton John, who landed here in 2015 on his way to a concert in Andorra.
St.Gallen-Altenrhein Airport: In Switzerland, owned and managed by an Austrian company, and serving Liechtenstein.
Liechtenstein is another small landlocked European principality with no space for a proper airport.
The closest airport, St. Gallen-Altenrhein, is itself subject to a curious international situation, as it's located right on the Switzerland-Austria border, just a few meters inside Swiss territory but owned and managed by an Austrian company, People's Viennaline.
St. Gallen-Altenrhein Airport made headlines in November 2016 when it became the base of the world's shortest international flight, an eight-minute trip to Germany's Friedrichshafen.
This initiative has already been stopped due to lack of demand, with the last flight taking off in April 2017.
Size isn't everything
Convenient access to air travel has not only become a requirement for a successful modern economy, but also, some might argue, a powerful symbol of sovereignty.
But as you can see, these European microstates prove, each in its own way, that lack of space or a small population is no obstacle to having a vibrant aviation scene or, in the case of San Marino, to become an industry player on a global scale.