Published in June 2016 issue

Michael Garvens, chairman of Cologne/Bonn Airport (CGN), must be a happy man. In recent months, he has had only good news to announce. European business has grown rapidly at the airport—which serves Germany’s fourth-biggest city, Cologne, the former capital, Bonn, and the surrounding region, one of the most densely populated in Europe—fueled by airlines like Ryanair (FR) and Eurowings (EW), which has recently announced CGN as its home base for its long-haul operations. All this makes it a good time to have a closer look at this ambitious German airport.

By Sebastian Schmitz

The early days

Flying in and around Cologne (or Köln) goes back more than a century, with early airships frequenting a provisional airfield west of the city. When flying really came into its own as a relevant means of transportation, a proper airport, the Butzweilerhof, was built, and soon became one of Germany’s busiest. Its beautiful terminal is still fully intact today and can be visited on tours.

After World War II, the small city of Bonn was made the capital of newly formed West Germany, and it soon became obvious that the existing airport could not accommodate the larger aircraft then being developed, let alone jets. Soon, the military airfield of Wahn, southeast of Cologne, was transformed to handle comercial operations.

Because the airfield operated both military and civilian flights, it remained under the control of the British forces for several years, allowing only six passenger flights per day. Airlines naturally opted for other airports, such as Düsseldorf (DUS) or Frankfurt (FRA); these saw their passenger figures grow rapidly, while Cologne/ Bonn’s largely stood still.

It was only in 1957, when it was fully returned to Germany, that the airport’s existing operational restrictions were lifted and it started catching up with its neighbors. One of CGN’s key supporters was Germany’s first postwar chancellor, Konrad Adenauer, and the airport is today named in his honor. In the 1960s, a new and longer runway was built. A decade later, the airport unveiled a modern terminal, with a design that enabled passengers to drive their cars literally almost to the check-in counters and departure gates.

Despite these advances, CGN’s passenger traffic never reached the levels enjoyed by other airports. Even so, during the 1980s, the airport hosted some unusual airlines: Cubana (CU) (flying Ilyushin 62s to Havana), Tower Air (FF), World Airways (WO), and BWIA (BW). All offered long-haul flights. None lasted very long.

In the 1990s, Lufthansa (LH) gave long-distance flying from Cologne/Bonn another try, offering direct service to Newark (EWR) and Washington (IAD), and even turning the airport into a small hub, connecting to both German and European destinations. However, German reunification and the opening of a new airport in Munich (MUC) put an end to this.

Then leisure carrier Condor (DE) (Airways, April 2016) launched inter-continental flights to the US, the Caribbean, and Africa with promising results. But the shock and aftermath of September 11, 2001, plunged the whole industry into one of its biggest crises. Cologne/Bonn suffered far more than long-established hub airports, its route network shrinking significantly.

Low-cost boom 1.0

The phenomenon of low-cost flying occurred much later in Europe than it had in North America. When it did, Cologne/Bonn was one of the major beneficiaries, as Garvens’ management team, unlike those of other airports, was wise enough to take this new business model seriously and understand the opportunities it brought with it.

The first German low-cost carriers (LCCs)— Germanwings (4U) and Hapag-Lloyd Express (X3)—chose Cologne/Bonn as their operating base in 2002. They offered flights to an unprecedented number of European destinations, largely complementing their respective networks, with very few competing routes, in a move aimed at competing with or defending their market share against fast-expanding airlines like Ryanair or easyJet (U2). The choice of CGN as their operating base was an obvious one: the airport was uncongested, it was eager to attract additional businesses, and occupied a privileged location, with 17 million potential travelers residing and many major companies based within a radius of 100km (60 miles).

Airport chairman Garvens calls the advent of low-cost flying an historic opportunity for the airport—one that became a resounding success. Within just a few years, passenger numbers soared from 5 million to a record of almost 10.5 million in 2007. Then, things suddenly went downhill. Hapag-Lloyd Express disappeared as a brand, most of its flying being taken over by Air Berlin (AB). The carrier opted to cancel many of its CGN routes in favor of DUS, Air Berlin’s major base. That left Germanwings as the major operator at the airport. Numbers declined to just over 9 million passengers a year and, despite Continental Airlines’ (CO) operating a direct flight to Newark (EWR) between 2005 and 2008, the airport found it difficult to compensate for the lost routes.

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Low-cost boom 2.0

CGN’s fortunes changed once more when Ryanair announced it would start service from there. Talks between the airport and the Irish carrier had been going on for years, but they only came to fruition when the airline shifted its focus away from remote small airfields to bigger airports.

The airline’s first two routes were to Palma de Mallorca (PMI) and Girona (GRO) in Spain—routes where little can go wrong, both being year-round high-volume markets for German passengers. Adding more destinations, Ryanair made Cologne/Bonn a base in October 2014. Since spring 2016, it offers 21 routes from the airport, including up to five daily frequencies to Berlin Schoenefeld (SXF), the carrier’s only domestic service from CGN and the busiest domestic route from the airport.

Although Cologne/Bonn had seen growth spurts in the past, it had never been much more than an important regional airport and had never played a significant role in long-haul flying. It is, after all, surrounded by several major airports—most notably FRA and, to some extent, DUS, which offers a fair selection of long-haul flights to North America and Asia. Even airports like Amsterdam (AMS) and Brussels (BRU) can easily be reached by car or train. When Eurowings announced long-haul flights in late 2014, and started flying them for the first time in early November 2015, it was a landmark for the airport.

At press time, Eurowings long-haul fleet was comprised by two Airbus A330-200s and a leased Boeing 767- 300(ER), and has brought 10 new longhaul destinations onto the airport’s departure board. The airline focusses heavily on German vacationers and their favorite destinations: Bangkok (BKK) and Phuket (HKT) in Thailand, Dubai (DXB); Punta Cana (PUJ) (Airways, May 2016) and Puerto Plata (POP) in the Dominican Republic, the Cuban resort town of Varadero (VRA), and Cancun (CUN) in Mexico, which are all served by scheduled flights. In addition, Bridgetown (BGI) in Barbados, La Romana (LRM) in the Dominican Republic, and Montego Bay (MBJ) in Jamaica will be served on behalf of tour operators as part of package vacations. The list of destinations is likely to grow as additional aircraft join the Eurowings fleet (plans call for five additional A330s, taking the eventual total fleet to seven widebodies).

In summer and fall 2016, Eurowings will add four new long-haul destinations: Mauritius (MRU), Boston (BOS), Las Vegas (LAS), and Miami (MIA). For an airport that has been lacking any US service for years, this is truly a big step.

Garvens enthuses, “We were definitely underrepresented in the long-haul segment. By attracting Eurowings, we will play a bigger role here and gain market share. For Cologne/ Bonn, this is the second historic chance after attracting the low-cost carriers 13 years ago. We want to establish ourselves as a Lufthansa long-haul airport, complementing Frankfurt and Munich.”

Since Germanwings operations have been merged into it, Eurowings is set to be the future brand of all of the Lufthansa group’s low-cost operations. While its new long-haul flights are largely aimed at local travelers, EW’s European and domestic network is so comprehensive that attractive through-connections will be bookable and contribute to passenger loads on the long-haul services.

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Other airlines and routes

Most of the airport’s flights are today operated by LCCs. While Eurowings is the dominant carrier with a very comprehensive network spanning all over Europe and into Northern Africa, Turkey, and Israel, other airlines have caught up and added routes. Ryanair, for one, is rapidly expanding at the airport. Another is Wizz Air (W6), which is hugely successful with its Eastern and Central European network. The airline, which first landed at CGN in 2009, will serve six destinations in Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Macedonia, and the Ukraine in winter 2015/2016. Other lowcost airlines at the airport are Norwegian (DY), Air Arabia (G9), Pegasus (PC), and Romania’s Blue Air (0B), which will be adding two Romanian cities, Sibiu (SBZ) and Iași (IAS) in spring 2016, or Russia’s Pobeda (DP), which recently added a route to Moscow Vnukovo (VKO).

While low-cost flying is booming, very few legacy airlines serve the airport. Once again, the proximity of airports like FRA and DUS provides overwhelming competition. Lufthansa and subsidiary Austrian (OS) (Airways, February 2015) do connect the airport to their respective hubs in MUC and Vienna (VIE). Turkish Airlines (TK) offers up to three daily flights to Istanbul (IST). And that is it, after KLM announced the closure of its route to Amsterdam in early 2016.

Does Michael Garvens see any gaps in its route network around Europe? “We have a very dense network, really, to all major markets in Europe,” he says. “I still see potential in Eastern Europe and Scandinavia.”

A major cargo hub

During the 1980s, when passenger aviation did not take off as expected at CGN, cargo became increasingly important as a source of revenue. Unlike most other German airports, CGN does not have a night curfew, a major advantage when trying to attract major integrators like United Parcel Service (UPS) (5X) or FedEx (FX), which do most of their flying at night.

The airport landed a big prize in the late 1980s, when UPS made CGN its European hub. Competitor TNT (3V) soon followed suit. While 3V moved away from CGN in 1998, UPS maintains its European base at the airport to date, its business growing significantly over the years.

In 2015, the airport handled 757,717 tons of cargo (making it number three in Germany), a figure that has been growing steadily at a rate averaging 4.3% since 2000. The airport expects the trend to continue, although probably at a slower rate.

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The airport experience

I call Cologne/Bonn my home airport. I’ve landed and departed from here many times. And usually, it is a super pleasant experience.

The semicircular Terminal 1 is still a step back in time to the 1970s. You see lots of bare concrete, as was the fashion at the time. When it was built, it was uncommon to see the numbers of shops or restaurants in an airport that we are used to today.

During recent years, a large number of outlets have been added. Compared with 10 to 15 years ago, the look of the terminal’s interior has changed significantly, while still retaining its 1970s feel. The original building had two satellites (what the airport calls ‘stars’) that were operated independently. In order to add floor space and departure gates, a new complex connecting the two satellites airside and called the ‘Starwalk’ was opened in 2004.

The new building has a glass facade and is quite a contrast to the two satellites it connects. It offers a variety of shops, dining options, and a great view of the main runway. When the Starwalk opened, a single central security control area was set up to replace the satellites’ separate checkpoints. While jet bridges are used for most flights departing and arriving at the two satellites, the Starwalk does not have any. Most flights departing from here park right in front of the terminal and passengers walk the short distance to or from the aircraft.

Terminal 1 is used by three airlines, all belonging to the LH Group: Eurowings, Lufthansa, and Austrian. Another welcome feature of Terminal 1 is the good observation deck, which offers decent opportunities to photograph the aircraft moving on the apron as well as those landing on runway 14L.

Terminal 2, located right next to Terminal 1, couldn’t be more different. This glass and steel building, designed by noted architect Helmut Jahn, was opened in 2000 and is used by all airlines not part of the LH Group. The check-in counters are constructed in a quite unique (and not very spaceeffective) pattern: they are paired two by two with gaps between them through which people can walk.

After check-in, passengers go to the central security checkpoint and find themselves in the departure lounge, with nice views of the apron and landing aircraft as well as the usual selection of shops and restaurants, none of them too pricey.

Using either terminal is usually quite a pleasant experience. Security at CGN seems to work more efficiently than it does at other German airports. I have hardly ever experienced any long queues. The terminals are connected by a covered walkway that looks a bit provisional. Plans are in place to create a more sophisticated connecting building to bring the terminals closer to each other.

Getting to CGN by ground is quite easy: the airport has its own railway station, with regional and suburban trains connecting it to Cologne and other cities in the area, and also high-speed trains feeding into the German rail network.

Interesting Times Ahead

What does the future hold for this fast-growing airport? With three runways and sufficient terminal capacity, there is still room for growth. The official current capacity is set at 14 million travelers; however, the terminals’ design could prove a challenge as these were not conceived to handle the 300 or more passengers of wide-body flights. Existing essential features, such as the seating areas at the boarding gates, might not be suited to cope with these new requirements.

Another critical point is apron capacity, which becomes very obvious when landing at the airport late in the evening. All parking stands are usually occupied, and there is very little extra space left. The airport is currently addressing this by reshuffling some of the parking positions. The building of additional apron space is not planned for the near future.

2015 was a year of growth for the airport, which handled over 10.33 million passengers. “The development of 2015 is very pleasing,” Garvens told Airways. “Cologne/Bonn has been one of the fastest-growing [airports] in Germany throughout this year. This trend will continue in 2016.”