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Italian airport system: synergies, investment, attractiveness

Bologna, 09/07/2018, National Roundtable

The starting premise of discussions at this national roundtable was that the issue of air transport owes its considerable complexity to the sheer number of stakeholders involved. The interests and different perspectives of airport operators, airline companies, travelers, local authorities, and other competing and combined transport networks were seen as calling for a synergistic approach both on the part of these players themselves and of the State. The latter – it was stressed – must govern the system in a way that is not only economically and socially sustainable, but which also strikes a balance between the interests of the various stakeholders.

Air transport was characterized by the participants as a system that requires "co-opertitive" behavior, combining competition and, where necessary, cooperation to create synergy. The competitive pressure between Italian airports has increased considerably, mainly as a result of the growth of low-cost airlines, while at the same time competition from European airports is also significant. Given this, there was a perceived need for a systemic approach that takes into account the peculiarities of the Italian context, wherein the weakness of the former national carrier does not facilitate the development of hubs and requires a different model. This was seen as amply demonstrated by the fact that although the only existing hub is Rome, 70% of business tickets are purchased north of Bologna. The airport systems model could hence serve as a test case for advocating a new systemic way of thinking.

It was noted that, according to IATA estimates, global air traffic is set to double by 2030. Italian airports, where the ratio between continental and intercontinental passengers is much higher than in other countries, must invest a lot to remain competitive given that the epicenters of market growth have shifted to Asia and the Middle East. While the participants acknowledged that the Italian airport system is certainly increasing in dynamism, with the gap between large and medium airports narrowing, it was nevertheless felt that greater regulatory certainty is needed to be able to tap into private capital. The current scenario was described as one where weaknesses and discrepancies continue to persist, including an inadequate set of bilateral agreements for intercontinental connections and poor integration with the high-speed network.

Another point which emerged in the discussions was the importance of effective medium- to long-term planning (as successfully employed with Italy’s high-speed network), which neither overestimates nor underestimates trend scenarios and should gain an adequate awareness of   operating conditions.

In this respect, it was suggested that a proper balance needs to be found between local and central powers in the governance of transport systems, which today is perhaps too skewed towards the local and therefore lacks an overall vision capable of making the full benefit of strategies and projects emerge. By way of example, attention was drawn to the stalled National Airport Plan, which has been bogged down by a preponderance of narrow local horizons.

It was emphasized that, in such a situation, planning timeframes are a sensitive issue. In the area of infrastructure, project completion times are necessarily long, even leaving aside the fact that bureaucratic/administrative constraints are sometimes avoidable but sometimes necessary to protect the exceptional character of Italy’s terrain. Thus planning capability also entails avoiding the mistake of waiting for infrastructure works to "be needed" in order for them to be planned. The Turin-Lyon high-speed railway was cited as an example of the difficulties that can arise in carrying out long-term projects, with contrasting views emerging on the necessary timeframes and a lack of a supra-local perspective (which would envision the TEN-T network as a Europe-wide transport link-up).

Airports are gateways and calling cards for foreign visitors, thus making it vital for travelers’ needs to be put at the heart of any planning of the travel experience, both at a specific level (at airports) and in a general sense (considering the entire journey door-to-door), through innovative solutions enabled by digital technologies. It was urged, in conclusion, that the "instrumentality" of air transport needs to be borne in mind: air transport is not an end unto itself, but serves local development which then feeds back into it. The ultimate aim is to improve attractiveness, which in turn can serve as a gauge of the effectiveness of planning itself.