First published in AMS business magazine. Author: Matt Farquharson

There isn’t much of a market for domestic flights in the Netherlands. In fact, if you want to take to the air within its borders, you’ll need to charter an aircraft of your own. The last scheduled domestic flights – Amsterdam to Maastricht – ended in 2008. Given that it takes less than three hours (and only €25) to make the journey by train, it’s perhaps surprising that they lasted so long. But as is so often the case in the Netherlands, those limitations have been turned to an advantage. ‘Our home carrier, KLM, was forced to work with a relatively small direct catchment area,’ explains Jos Nijhuis, CEO of Amsterdam Airport Schiphol. ‘Being entrepreneurs, many decades ago they adopted the concept of a hub and spoke model, to allow the Netherlands to have good connectivity.’

For ‘hub and spoke’, imagine an elaborate wagon wheel, with Amsterdam as the centre point. With enough spokes reaching outwards, if you are a traveller in, say, Leeds and hoping to get to Bucharest, it makes little difference if you change planes in Amsterdam or Heathrow. The more extensive the network of spokes, the more likely you are to go via the hub in the middle. The case is even clearer if you’re flying between the Americas and Africa or Asia with a change in Europe.‘London has a very strong business community. Everybody needs to travel to London,’ says Nijhuis, ‘so they don’t have to convince passengers to use Heathrow Airport. But we have to for Amsterdam. The reasons Schiphol grew are purely economics: the limited catchment area of the Netherlands makes an extensive network with frequent flights essential.’As a result, Schiphol currently serves more than 320 destinations worldwide, and almost 40% of its passengers are people transferring to a connecting flight. Only 33% of the total passengers are Dutch nationals. ‘Our connectivity with the UK covers twenty-six destinations, while Heathrow has seven,’ Nijhuis gives as an example. ‘This is a matter of decades of hard work, of course. But we benefit from the successful model developed by KLM.’

The triangle of cooperation

Schiphol Airport began in 1916 as a grass field on reclaimed land. Today, it is the 13th busiest airport in the world by aircraft movements, ahead of larger cities such as Hong Kong, New York’s JFK, Shanghai and Munich. It is Europe’s fifth-busiest airport by annual number of passengers. Much of the growth that has taken place over the last century can be attributed to the cooperation between KLM, Schiphol and the Dutch government. ‘Together, KLM and Schiphol made it work, with the government arranging bilateral agreements that helped with long-haul destinations,’ says Nijhuis. ‘You see it also happening in the Middle East, of course, where everything is connected to the government, and the airline and airport form a very strong triangle. Basically, KLM, Schiphol and the Dutch government are doing the same, but initiated it decades ago.’

The quick change

For a hub airport such as Schiphol to remain attractive, travellers need to know that their interchange will run smoothly. ‘Everything is focused on guaranteeing a short connection time of 40 minutes,’ Nijhuis explains. ‘Our connectivity is the foundation of our success. And the fact that we are still a one-roof terminal. You don’t have to hop from one terminal to another.’And, while Schiphol Airport has more than 20 airside restaurants and scores of shops, travel convenience always comes first. ‘We don’t have to make money on everything happening at the airport. Ambiance is very important,’ says Nijhuis.

‘An airport is not a shopping mall. Retail and food and beverage are important to the airport, and they should be of appropriate quality, but they should never interfere with the smooth process for the passenger. I’m not sure that I’m very much in favour of all those walk-through stores in airports. I don’t know if the passenger really likes that. It’s up to the passenger to decide how – and even, if – to spend their money.’For those keen to linger, however, the airport does offer up spas, a casino, a library and a small outpost of the Rijksmuseum – but none of these interfere with the flow of passengers to (or between) planes.

The next decade

In 2013, Schiphol launched a ‘masterplan’, with a view to increase the airport’s capacity to handle 85 million passengers a year by 2025. In 2015, that number had already reached almost 60 million. Phase one included a shift to a centralised security system, which is now complete. Larger and slicker than the previous system, it further eases the flow of passengers through the airport.‘We had central security in the Schengen Area, but not the non-Schengen Area,’ says Nijhuis. The Schengen agreement allows travel within most mainland EU states (plus Norway and Switzerland) without showing your passport. Moving to a central security system for all passengers, Nijhuis says, ‘provided us with a possibility to set up security as a service. It is an area where we try to differentiate ourselves from our competitors. You don’t want to be at risk on a plane, and security should be a thorough process because it guarantees safety on board. But you can provide that security as a service instead of a hassle.’

The Schiphol approach was to try and give passengers maximum flexibility and to keep queuing to a minimum. ‘I find that, in other airports, I’m always behind someone who is much slower than I would like them to be. That’s because, if you are an experienced traveller, you know exactly what to take out of your bag, what to take out of your pocket. Through our new security concept, you have the possibility to naturally pass a slower passenger just in front of you, without putting unnecessary pressure on them.’ There was also a considerable effort put into what Nijhuis calls ‘the ambience of the security experience’ and the combinations of light and fragrance.‘We use natural lighting and different light intensities. We use natural materials so people feel at ease, and not stressed because the security process is already stressful enough. We do whatever we can to compensate that. The area where you have to pack your bag again has a slightly stronger light so that you don’t forget stuff,’ Nijhuis explains. The next stages of the masterplan include a new pier and terminal expansion.

Growing sustainability

Air travel has a considerable impact on the planet’s CO2 emissions. It’s an unavoidable consequence of burning aviation fuel, but there are ways to mitigate the broader environmental impact of air travel. ‘Sustainability for the airport and aviation sector as a whole is of incredible importance,’ says Nijhuis. ‘And sustainability is everything: noise, air pollution, energy consumption and CO2 emissions. I believe that airports should do more than their utmost to take care of their responsibility towards the environment.’ It may sound counterintuitive to hear of an airport with sustainability goals, but in a heavy-polluting industry, every effort makes a difference. KLM is a leading proponent of biofuel for commercial flights, and Schiphol itself is a leading airport for sustainability issues. It has set the goal of generating 30% less CO2 in 2020 than in 1990, and currently has 3,000 m2 of solar panels.

‘Consider electrification,’ Nijhuis says. ‘We have 167 Tesla electric taxis at the airport to move passengers from the airport into the city. That creates a better climate in the city, but of course also at the airport. The same with electric buses for all airside movements. Because all of those buses come back at the end of the day at the same spot, the batteries can be recharged.’ The airport views sustainability in the broadest sense, from community consultations about noise levels to how it manages its supply chain and HR. ‘A part of sustainability is also what we call sustainable employment,’ Nijhuis explains. ‘We should ensure that we treat people fairly, and that all staff at the airport treat visitors fairly. Hospitality and passenger experience are key for us.’

Going digital

While Schiphol Airport has impressive physical plans and hopes to bring them about in as sustainable a way as possible, perhaps its biggest goals lie in more technical realms. ‘We have the ambition to be the best digital airport in the world. What I mean by that is that we will use technology to create better and more efficient processes to facilitate a seamless passenger journey,’ says Nijhuis. As with the recent work on setting central security, the prime objective is a simpler, smoother passenger journey. ‘We can use technology to give passengers much more guidance at the airport, and perhaps even when they’re still at home, by helping them decide which public transport they should choose based on traffic. With current technology that would be easy, but as with the security programme, we can do a lot more.’

Nijhuis envisions a passenger experience where all non-essential inconveniences in the airport experience are stripped away. ‘Why do we have to show our passport several times at the airport? You could do it once at the entrance to the airport, and then you’re recognised, and the system should know where you’re going. But technology can also stop passengers from being an inconvenience to each other. ‘You often hear those messages over the speaker: Mr or Mrs Suchandsuch should go to the gate immediately, otherwise their luggage will be offloaded…’ says Nijhuis. ‘But if we know where the passenger is, because they’ve logged in with their mobile phone, we can just pick that person out of the queue, if there is a queue, or pick them out of the bar, to ensure that they won’t miss their plane.’

With this in mind, Schiphol is the first airport in the world to have full ‘Bluetooth beacon’ coverage. These beacons allow connected smartphones to access location-based information, such as your position in the building and the best route to the gate, or to automatically show a digital boarding pass when approaching a check-in counter. So while the future looks bright, it’s important to remember the principles that helped this once-muddy field grow to what it is today. ‘I believe strongly in how this all started: it’s the system of home carrier, airport and government that lets us compete. Part of our long-term success relies on whether we let that system work,’ Nijhuis concludes. Given that it’s worked so well for the past 100 years, why break a winning formula?