FX Excursions

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Breaking New Ground

Jan 1, 2011
2011 / January 2011

Japan Airlines flight attendants dressed in vintage uniforms from the carrier’s 60-year history strolled past a table full of cupcakes daubed with “JAL New Haneda” icing to pose for keepsake photos with passengers on JAL flight 001. The flight was about to board, departing San Francisco International Airport (SFO) for Tokyo’s dramatically expanded and modernized Haneda (HND) Airport.

It was a signal occasion, held to mark Haneda’s first international passenger flights in 32 years. That’s how long it had been since international service shifted to Tokyo’s then-new Narita International (NRT) in 1978, relegating Haneda to purely domestic use. That’s changing. In 2011, JAL rival All Nippon Airways, American Airlines, British Airways and other carriers will shift many of their long-haul flights back to Haneda and its beautiful and functional new international terminal, a major connector for China and other points in Asia. The terminal opened Oct. 31.

For JAL, it’s a back-to-the-future moment. The carrier’s first-ever international flight took off from Haneda for San Francisco in 1954. The aircraft used on that flight, a Douglas DC-6, took three days, with island-hopping layovers, to reach SFO. The airline uses a Boeing 777-200 now. The trip takes 12 hours.

The makeover of Haneda International, located nine miles and just 25 minutes by monorail and the Keikyu train line from central Tokyo — transit times are one to two hours for Narita — is one of the most striking changes that global travelers will experience in 2011. It is far from the only one.

The world’s airports are beavering away on infrastructure projects, some with budgets in the billions, while airlines and airline alliances are seeking new ways to pamper their prime passengers. Miami International’s (MIA) four-month-old Skytrain, Helsinki-Vantaa International’s (HEL) sumptuous Finnair Via Spa, sporting events live and in-person at Munich International (MUC), a $350 million runway at New York’s Kennedy International (JFK) completed in November and the scheduled spring opening of a new domestic terminal at SFO — all are designed to take some of the stress out of travel.

Still others are in early stages with arrival a few years off, such as The Green Build, a $1 billion, environmentally friendly project at San Diego International (SAN); Delta Air Lines’ $1.2 billion redo of JFK’s Terminal 4; and a five-year redevelopment of Denver International’s (DIA) South Terminal, complete with a new rail station designed by Spanish “starchitect” Santiago Calatrava and twice as many airport security stations. In all cases, the message to travelers is the same: Help is on the way.

That is welcome news for travelers at the world’s congested airports. The global recession dropped passenger traffic by 1.8 percent in 2009 from 2008 to just under 4.8 billion passengers; but 2010’s final numbers will spike higher, and 2011 is expected to be a busy year according to Airports Council International, the Geneva trade organization for 1,633 airports in 179 countries.

The rebooted Haneda Airport has already helped ease congestion at Narita and is such a success among locals that even Tokyoites who aren’t flying anywhere flock to Haneda to dine and shop. Many new shops and restaurants — some of them arrayed in a tastefully understated configuration resembling a traditional Japanese shopping and eating street — are easily accessible outside the security perimeter. JAL and its oneworld alliance partners claim that international-to-domestic connections among member airlines have been cut to an average of 70 minutes from 90. Oneworld has clustered check-in desks and kiosks on the left side of the main hall. On Jan. 20, oneworld carrier American Airlines joins the party, launching a daily non-stop flight between Haneda and JFK.

Star Alliance carriers such as ANA, United Airlines and Lufthansa have clustered ticketing and check-in desks together in the new facility, too, aimed at speeding travelers on their way. Haneda has simultaneously expanded and modernized its two domestic terminals and built a fourth runway. The new Tokyo International Air Terminal, as it is known, is linked to Tokyo by a purpose-built monorail that funnels travelers and their luggage through the new Terminal Building Station. At Helsinki-Vantaa, Finnair recently opened a fully automated passport control area for departing citizens of the E.U., the European Economic Area and Switzerland who hold passports with stored biometric data; passengers can complete the control check in about 20–30 seconds.

The JAL DC-6 that left Haneda back in 1954 touched down at what was then San Francisco’s international terminal. When SFO opened a soaring, expansive international terminal in December 2000, the old IT lost its airline tenants and became an airport version of the Arabian Peninsula’s bleak Empty Quarter. That will change this spring, when the abandoned terminal will morph into Terminal 2 as a domestic facility. American will then shift domestic flights there from Terminal 3. Virgin America also plans to move to the renewed T2, which will boast six security screening stations, 12 restaurants, a wine bar and free WiFi throughout.

Some world cities — Hong Kong, Shanghai, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur — built new airports from scratch over the past dozen years. In the past three years, major airports built huge, entirely new terminals: London Heathrow (LHR), Beijing Capital (PEK), Madrid-Barajas (MAD) and Barcelona International (BCN).

No new airports on a vast scale are set to open this year, but growing passenger traffic is driving completion of an all-new airport near Quito. Built to handle 4 million passengers, officials in Ecuador’s capital and largest city plan to cut the ribbon on the new, seven-gate Quito International (UIO) airport in November. The new airport will have a longer runway and operate at a lower elevation than the city’s present airport to increase lift for passenger and cargo planes in the mountainous region.

Ambitious airport authorities such as the operators of Dubai International (DXB) expect to see continuing hyper-growth. Dubai Airports predicts that 52.2 million passengers will use the desert palace of an airport in 2011, up 13.1 percent from the 46.1 million in 2010. Dubai is building a new Concourse 3, designed to become the world’s first dedicated facility for the Airbus superjumbo A380, which Dubai’s home airline, Emirates, has ordered by the dozens.

“Dubai’s aviation industry is thriving due to its liberal aviation policies, tax-free environment [and] geocentric location, as well as its willingness to invest in top-flight infrastructure,” said Paul Griffiths, chief executive officer of Dubai Airports last November. “It is a formula that clearly works. … The challenge going forward is to ensure we have ample capacity in place to accommodate traffic growth.” Dubai International is the world’s sixth-busiest airport for passenger traffic and fourth-busiest for cargo.

Back in 1998, Miami began what is now a $6.4 billion expansion and renovation of Miami International, a major gateway to and from Latin America. That extreme makeover has progressed in fits and starts. Scheduled to be completed in 2011, the redevelopment took a step forward last September when MIA opened its mile-long Skytrain people mover. The system connects 60 gates in the new North Terminal (Concourse D), a home base for American Airlines and regional carrier American Eagle.

“This is the missing piece of the puzzle,” MIA spokesman Greg Chin told The Miami Herald. “The Skytrain really ties everything together. You can arrive on a flight and, if you are connecting, get to the other end of the terminal in a matter of four minutes.” The system is designed to carry 9,000 passengers an hour.

That should help air travelers de-stress, a goal of airlines and airports around the planet. Few airports help calm people down as smoothly and entertain them as cleverly as Germany’s Munich International. MUC, which opened in Bavaria in the 1990s, has burnished its customer service since then and, at its best, has pampering down to a fine art.

MUC offers passengers a last-minute massage near the gates in Terminal 2, hosts a Kempinski Hotel Fit & Fly Health & Spa Club, offers pedicures and manicures in Be Relax spas in both terminals and men’s haircuts at a recently opened Brants Barber & Shop. Sleepy? Tumble into one of the two “nap cabs” — sleeping cabins complete with a couch and soothing music, plus a flat-screen TV and Internet work station for insomniacs.

There’s more: MAC — the Munich Airport Center, located between the two terminals — stages live polo and volleyball matches, showcases the latest BMW and Audi models and has a beer garden. Travelers can unwind with a stein of Airbräu beer, brewed at the airport since 2003.

It may not have a beer garden, but Toronto’s steadily growing Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport (YTZ) boasts a widening range of passenger amenities such as complimentary WiFi and Internet work stations with iMacs. Porter Airlines opened a second lounge last September for customers flying in Canada and to several U.S. cities. “The airport’s success is creating the need for infrastructure enhancements such as the new lounge,” said Robert Deluce, Porter’s president and CEO.

Meanwhile, travelers transiting in Finland can get the chill out in the 1-year-old Via Spa at Helsinki-Vantaa International. Options include paddling about in a mineral-water pool or taking a spruce and stone sauna or a traditional Finnish sauna while overlooking the runways. Treatments at the Finnair facility are short courses designed expressly for travelers transferring between Europe and Asia.


FX Excursions

FX Excursions offers the chance for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in destinations around the world.


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