The Mainport Schiphol is a major enabler for the development of the northern part of the Randstad region – the so-called ‘North Wing’. Its aviation network is widely recognized as the most valuable asset for the economy. However, at the same time, the unwanted by-products of Schiphol Mainport could become the most important impediment to development of the North Wing. This contradiction has been dubbed the ‘Schiphol Mainport paradox’. The Mainport paradox has already existed for a long period of time, and, if no major policy shift occurs, it will continue to do so. The worst-case scenario is that the very engine that powers the North Wing (‘Schiphol Mainport inside’) will, in the end, limit or paralyze the planned development of the North Wing.
The Dutch economy strongly relies on the service industry in general. A national government program, called ‘Pieken in de Delta’, identifies the North Wing of the Randstad region as the core of the Dutch service industry. The service industry can be characterized as a multi-layered network economy; personal networks enable professionals to create flexible teams to respond to market needs, virtual ICT networks to link the databases and workplaces of professionals, and, last but not least, physical/logistical networks to allow persons, goods and services to meet at the various hotspots worldwide, not being tied by location or time.
The Schiphol Mainport network, which serves 260+ destinations at a high frequency, is at the core of the airport’s contribution to the region. It supports the physical/logistical network of the service industry in the North Wing by offering professionals the ability to travel either directly or at minimum travel times to any destination worldwide at any time. The availability of the aviation network highly contributes to the competitiveness of the region.
Schiphol Mainport is also a high- standard meeting place, which acts as an operating base for companies in the service industry; the 24-hours operating airport is an ideal place to work in international teams with members in other regions and time zones. The so-called Airport City development gives proof to the power of the airport as a meeting place and workplace.
The contribution of the Schiphol network to the North Wing could be even higher if it were integrated with the virtual network. Amsterdam is an important node in intercontinental cable network for internet data traffic. The Virtual Mainport, the Amsterdam internet hub, is a hidden asset of the North Wing, which has the potential to increase the competitiveness of the region. New innovative and creative industries rise on the backbone of the internet. The combination of the two Mainports, transportation/logistics and internet backbone, will act as a ‘rocket booster’ for the service-based economy.
Unfortunately, Mainport Schiphol also produces many unwanted products and services, varying from noise hinder, safety hazards, air pollution, and emissions to congestion, and limited growth for municipalities, because of noise and safety contours. Although much attention is focused on noise and emissions itself, the largest obstacle for economic development in the North Wing might come from somewhere else.
First, there are the spatial requirements of the airport, and the congestion in the airport region. The physical fences around the airport do not delineate its real boundaries. Those are set by the noise and safety contours, which cover over 200 km2 in total. Large areas of the North Wing face severe growth limitations, which already hamper the development of the local communities surrounding the airport. This, combined with increased congestion within the North Wing (caused by the airport and other factors) makes the region less attractive to settle, or even to get there.
Second, there is the future growth of the Mainport Schiphol itself. The forecasted growth will result in increased handling times at the airport to board or to change planes, due to the size of facilities. Together with increased security procedures and subsequent early reporting times, the advantage of short traveling times towards many destinations worldwide will diminish. Smaller airports are rapidly becoming more competitive because of shorter handling times and high convenience; business airports, like Rotterdam, are highly appreciated.
Third, the scope of aviation is about to change in the next few decades. The very large segment, with the arrival of new Airbus and Boeing aircraft, will see changes, and the new generation Very Light Jets (VLJ) will play an important role in future. Production facilities for this type of aircraft are fully booked for the next few years, and many new aircraft are expected to come into operation in the next decade. VLJ-founder Roel Pieper already compared the rise of the VLJs to the ‘pc versus mainframe struggle’ in aviation.
A congested Mainport aiming for 85 million passengers tends to cater to the large aircraft, handling high volumes of passengers. The risks of congestion and thus losing the competitive advantage in terms of short and convenient travel times are very high. Professionals trying to shorten their travel times will avoid the large networks and start to admire the flexible use of VLJs. The current practice at the Mainport is, however, not to accommodate this type of traffic for obvious capacity reasons.
Professional networks will be less efficient and harmed. Professionals, becoming more and more footloose, will choose another base to operate from. This is the very heart of the Schiphol Mainport paradox. The Schiphol Mainport inside bonus for the North Wing of the Randstad region could become a ‘fix that backfires’: the preferred solution will not solve the problem, but, on the contrary, like a boomerang, increase the problem even further. The challenge for all stakeholders involved is to keep the networks open and efficient. The government has an important role to actively manage the required boundary conditions for future Mainport development.
The growth of Schiphol Mainport should therefore be carefully monitored. First of all, new destinations should be assessed on the value added for the professional networks: are we adding the right destinations and frequencies to support our regions competitive position from a service- industry perspective? Secondly, maintain the Mainport quality: are we delivering the right level of service in terms of short and convenient handling times, as well as maintaining a position as the most effective and well-connected – including ICT- workplace in the North Wing, and, thus, optimizing the efficiency of the professional networks? Thirdly, are we delivering the right product: are we capable of adapting operations if other means of transportation, like the VLJs, will be used to connect the professional networks in the future?
Lessons from other branches, like the computer and telecom industries, have learned that past experience and insights are not always the best indicator for future developments. Volume growth and subsequent increase of airport size are still the dominant developments and viewpoints within the aviation industry worldwide, but this is no guarantee that (super) large airports are the only, or exclusive, right solution to increase/support the competitiveness of the region. Managing the Mainport value for the region might, at a given point in time, come to different solutions and business drivers.
Geert Boosten is lecturer in Aviation Management at the Amsterdam School of Technology.
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