High road to the future

Updated: 2011-10-14 08:42

By Meng Jing (China Daily)

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 High road to the future

Wolfgang Weil, chief operations officer of Xi'an airport, says that forward plans are important for airport development. Meng Jing / China Daily

Xi'an Airport gets ready to unlock commercial value with German assistance

Though annual passenger numbers have grown by more than 50 percent in the last three years, Wolfgang Weil, the chief operations officer of Xi'an Xianyang International Airport (XXIA), wants to remove 200 seats in the waiting area near the boarding gates.

"There is no rule that passengers must sit in the waiting areas. With just a few seats available, people will prefer to sit at the airport restaurants and cafes, thereby spending more money and boosting airport revenues," Weil says.

Xi'an is the eighth-largest airport in China in terms of passenger throughput, but has not received any complaints from passengers about the lack of seating space at the airport. Passenger numbers at the gateway airport to Northwest China's Shaanxi province is expected to surge from 12 million in 2008 to more than 21 million by the end of this year.

Unlocking the commercial potential of the airport is just one of the several changes introduced by Weil in Xi'an, a Sino-European joint venture airport in China. German airport operator Fraport, which also owns the Frankfurt Airport, acquired a 24.5 percent stake in the Xi'an airport in 2008.

"We want to develop better, so we have to learn from the best," says Zhang Wenge, general manager of XXIA, explaining the rationale behind choosing an overseas strategic partner.

Frankfurt is a city with a population of around 680,000 but its airport accommodates more than 50 million passengers every year.

"We believe that we can learn a lot from Frankfurt Airport's management, operation and their vision on creating a harbor airport," Zhang says.

Fraport's 75 year track record in airport management was another reason for the choice of the strategic partner. With the arrival of Weil, one of the five senior managers of XXIA, in August 2008, things have changed remarkably at the 20-year-old airport in Xi'an, the capital city of Shaanxi province.

Weil has come up with a five-year plan instead of the normal one-year budget plan used by the airport for several years. He says that there is a misconception in the West that China is a country where everything is planned.

"The country has a Five-Year Plan, but very few Chinese companies have forward-looking plans that are vital for gauging future trends," he says.

For airport development forward plans are important, as infrastructure planning is often a long-term exercise, Weil says.

Apart from changing the long-established planning mode, Fraport has also emphasized the importance of having a development plan.

"We had initially planned to build an 80,000-square-meter parking lot in front of the new terminal three, but Fraport vetoed the idea," Zhang says.

However, when a new proposal to build an integrated ground transportation center - a complex that has underground car parks and dedicated areas for taxis, long-distance buses, and even future linkages with subways - was presented, the German operator agreed.

"Though we had to invest an extra 200 million yuan ($31.4 million, 23 million euros) on the facility, we realized it was the best for the future development of the airport," Zhang says, adding that Frankfurt Airport has a similar facility.

Seamless transfers from air to ground traffic is important to ensure air traffic flow at XXIA transcends to the next level, Weil says. "It is important to move passengers out of the airport as efficiently as possible, especially when annual passenger throughput exceeds 30 million."

According to Zhang, XXIA is expected to reach that target by 2015.

Handling the surge in air traffic is one of the major challenges for Weil. "Between 2008 and 2011, we have seen a 75 percent growth in traffic, thereby putting a severe strain on our existing resources and operations," he says.

But Weil says he would rather be in Xi'an and cope with the passenger surge rather than the dwindling or flat numbers at major Western airports.

For the moment, Weil's top priority is to get the spanking new terminal three of the airport ready for operations by next year.

Like a doting parent, Weil spends long hours poring through the drawings, plans and checking the interior decoration of what he terms as a once in a lifetime opportunity project because of its large size.

The new terminal set to open in March 2012 has a design capacity of handling up to 22 million passengers every year and a 3,800-meter runway that is suitable for big-bodied aircraft like the Airbus A380.

Weil visits the construction sites at the airport once a week to supervise the progress and takes photographs of anything that he finds inappropriate. "That is ugly and unnecessary" are the words frequently heard during his site inspections.

Weil envisages the new terminal to be an ambassador of Xi'an with typical Chinese elements and characters used for decorations and also a commercial area that is seldom seen at other Chinese airports.

The terminal's central commercial zone - designed as an airplane departure lounge concept - will initially be equipped with 30 shops and restaurants, and is believed to have made quite an impression with passengers.

But more importantly, what Weil and Fraport bring to the daily operations of XXIA is the dedication and attention to detail.

Though he hates to be labeled as a perfectionist, Weil says the tag suits his purpose for now. "I cannot accept if a door is not in the right angle," he says.

Much of his management style rests on the premise of his being a hands-on type of manager. "I'm a leader, not a sitter. If you want to lead, you have to walk first," Weil says.

He spends a lot of time in the airport and does not mind reprimanding offenders.

"It shows my commitment to work. Others may chose to follow the same line, especially if they see senior personnel doing the same," he says.

At the same time, Weil apologizes that he cannot speak in Chinese as he has been busy with his work.

"I hate to be one of those lazy foreigners who cannot speak the local language, but the work here has been overwhelming and I just cannot find the time to learn Chinese," he says.

(China Daily 10/14/2011 page6)