Budapest Airport Coming Back to Life as Air Traffic Resumes

Transport

Ferenc Liszt International Airport has become a key lifeline for bringing in cargo, including medical supplies. Rolf Schnitzler, CEO of operator Budapest Airport, tells the Budapest Business Journal what it is like running such an operation amid a pandemic.

Rolf Schnitzler, CEO of operator Budapest Airport.

BBJ: Whatʼs the airport like now? Is it a ghost town, or is there more life there than we might imagine? How much of it is closed down?

Rolf Schnitzler: We are coming back to life. Of course, this is not like when Sleeping Beauty woke up from her slumber, and everything carried on as before. Unfortunately, we have to prepare for a long and gradual process. The resumption of passenger traffic is primarily dependent on when borders are reopened and to what extent the propensity to travel returns. We are currently using this calm period for some repairs and improvements and, of course, we have already introduced special procedures to protect the health and safety of all passengers and staff at the airport.

Some terminal areas are currently closed, but these will be reopened in line with the volume of traffic. Most of the shops are also closed for the time being, given the low traffic, but also because the restrictions. But a few outlets, like a café, a take-away bistro and the supermarket are open, so that travelers can enjoy at least a basic offer already.

BBJ: How many flights do you have on average a day, and whatʼs the breakdown between cargo and passengers? How would that compare with pre-COVID?

RS: Cargo is operating almost in line with our expectations. Budapest Airport handled 10,264 tons of air cargo in April and a total of 43,395 tons during the first four months of the year. Besides regular import and export goods, special medical consignments are arriving on a daily basis, with face masks, personal protective equipment and medical ventilators. I think this is the time when everyone realized just how important air cargo is. With borders closed, it is the only reliable mode of transportation, not to mention the fact that it supports the national economy and plays a key role in ensuring appropriate medical care.

As regards passenger traffic, April was the worst month on record. Passenger numbers are down 99% compared to last April. In numerical terms, this means that we recorded 200-300 passengers and some 20 aircraft movements per day, instead of 45,000 passengers and 300 take-offs and landings daily, as previously. There was a day when only two passenger flights took off from the airport. The numbers have increased a little since the beginning of May, when airlines started to serve around 20 destinations again from Budapest. More flights are likely to restart in June, but for the moment, these are only plans. The situation is changing day by day.

BBJ: How many staff are working at the airport now, and how are you structuring work shifts?

RS: Right now, we only need about one-third of our staff at the terminal to keep the airport operational and running 24/7 and to handle the current level of passenger traffic. We have separated the shifts from each other, to minimize personal contact between colleagues. We have also established independent teams in critical operational positions, to safeguard seamless operation even if someone falls ill. Thankfully, at present we are not aware of any such staff members, and the new shift system is working very well. Wherever possible, we enabled office staff to work from home already in March; many have utilized that opportunity. Our colleagues have shown fantastic solidarity; everyone who could do so agreed to work part-time, in order to protect as many jobs as possible. This amazing solidarity and our preparations for the recovery of air travel have thankfully enabled us to keep most of our staff.

BBJ: The airport is a vital link in bring medical supplies into Hungary across the "air bridge" with China. How easy has it been to ensure your staff have the proper PPE, and how has that changed over time?

RS: We always had a quantity of PPE on stock, and with the outbreak of the pandemic, we immediately increased our stocks, to be able to protect our staff at all times. We also helped other companies involved in the handling of cargo flights to equip their workforce, to ensure the health and safety of staff. And with strong governmental support, we made sure that foreign air crews should undergo medical screening and can enter the country if they do not show any symptoms. They spend their resting time at the airport hotel, in quarantine. This special procedure also helped to attract cargo traffic to Budapest.

BBJ: What has the government support been like? Have they asked you to help or ordered you to do so?

RS: We are working in very close cooperation with the government, the Operational Group, the National Public Health Center and the competent ministries. For example, we had introduced body temperature measurement, medical treatment as necessary and isolation rooms at the airport already in January, in cooperation with governmental bodies. The current situation requires close partnership; that is the only way to manage this pandemic. Luckily, we have that in place.

BBJ: Are you picking up any industry indications for when more flights might resume, assuming government regulations allow it?

RS: Passenger traffic will only restart after the lifting of the governmental restrictions; that is clear. The opening of the borders and the lifting of the blanket quarantine requirements will depend on the spread of the virus during the coming weeks. If the pandemic slows down, we expect governments throughout Europe to ease restrictions. The European Commission has already started to promote the restoration of transportation and connectivity.

BBJ: British Airways has warned it may have to lay off 125,000 people. How worried are you about the ability of airlines to survive a prolonged period where they have little or no aircraft in the air?

RS: Not all airlines will survive the current crisis. Just like airports, airlines face a huge fixed cost base and generate little or no turnover right now. An aircraft only earns money when it is in the air. However, market consolidations are not a new phenomenon, but part of our economic system. Strong or new players may fill the gaps created by those exiting the market. Aircraft are available, and ultimately, air travel will be rebuilt by the demand from passengers to fly. Budapest and Hungary are charming, vibrant and economically successful destinations that will continue to attract leisure travelers and business people alike. Hungarians also love to travel. Our mix of airline partners will always serve the demand to and from this prime location, which I believe will continue to be above-average, as it has been in the past.    

BBJ: Budapest Airport had broken passenger and cargo numbers year after year for five consecutive years. Do you have any idea how long it will take to get back to those levels?

RS: We do not expect to reach last year’s record of more than 16 million passengers before 2022, or maybe 2023 is even more realistic. Rebuilding our route network will take great efforts and a lot of hard work. Unfortunately, we already know that some, mainly long-haul destinations will not be accessible from Budapest for the rest of this year.

BBJ: Is it your expectation that people will return to their pre-crisis flying habits?

RS: People like to travel, and if their experience is that they can do this without health risks, then they will fly again. We, as airport operator, and the airlines have to do everything we can to ensure a safe and risk-free passenger experience. But habits will definitely change until the virus is really under control.

BBJ: What has been the hardest part of your experience of leading an organization through an unprecedented time like this?

RS: The hardest part was realizing that the downturn will not only last for the winter schedule season, but leaves real skid marks, forcing us to reduce our workforce. That involves the livelihoods of our colleagues. On the other hand, it is challenging to rebuild operations and traffic under circumstances which change day by day. But my team and I are ready for the challenge, and optimistic to rebuild from the ashes as quickly as possible. That is what we are working for, day and night.

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