Milan’s trio of airports each sing their own song

 - May 8, 2008, 5:47 AM

Commuting from the central business district of Milan, Italy, to its three airports, the advantages of Linate and its eight-minute ride become obvious. Linate (LIML) is within Milan’s eastern limits while Malpensa International is some 28 mi west. Orio al Serio, in the city of Bergamo, 22 mi northeast, is another option. Given the oft gridlocked Italian motor traffic, Bergamo is an easier hop for the 2.5 million Milanese and those residing in the eastern suburbs than Linate.

The Italian ministry of transport, however, is focusing capital investment and marketing outreach on remote Malpensa, whose semantic Italian meaning is telling: “a swampy place.” Though malpensa refers to the marshy flood plain from the Italian Alps through the lake district, the description suits the regulatory muck facing local business aviation.

Various decrees from the Italian minister of transport and navigation, more than market forces or practical measures of customer service, steer the fate of northern Italy’s three principal airports. All three operate shuttle bus connections from Milano central station, and Malpensa and Orio al Serio also offer express rail links, though 60 percent of traffic to both is by private vehicle.

While Linate trumpets its close location (about three miles) to central station and its ornate Il Duomo and La Scala, competitors at Malpensa say Linate’s 1.25-mi taxiing distance and casual servicing response mean a longer time from touchdown to final passenger destination. Linate business aviation operators counter that the ground commute to the swampy place, and Malpensa’s processing time and customs, erase any advantage from ground handling. Regional operator Gandalf Airlines of Bergamo (see story on page 58) said the true measure is time of customer origin right through to final airport, including the walk from parking and from terminal to aircraft.

But Gandalf Air and ALBA, a charter operator from Linate, point to the most common stage length of one hour to a maximum 90 min and admit that passengers do not make selections principally for time value, or for that matter, any of the remaining roster of traditional advantages of business aviation, such as privacy or security. The European fare structure makes midweek business travel on the majors an equivalent cost to charter. Given the wash in time savings, Massimiliano Dosi of Linate’s Ali Trasporti Aerei, which handled 25,052 movements last year, said the chief competitors to business aviation are the wildly popular frequent-flier programs of majors into Milan.

“We should be targeting the corporate secretaries who make these reservations for their bosses,” said Dosi. Gandalf has already recognized this, opening its profitable GSS Travel Office this year, part of its new Even G7 subsidiary, to fulfill the requirements of executives who attend Italy’s many trade fairs.

Other Italian operators, FBOs and service providers have carved a niche with products ranging from fresh-shaped pasta for in-flight catering to sales of the roof space of business aircraft hangars for commercial product placements. At Linate, the neon blaze on the hangar roof touting design house Emporio Armani will bring in $1.5 million over five years. Societa Esercizi Aeroportuali (S.E.A.) plans to negotiate similar ad placement for the rear of Linate’s business aircraft hangars, which face commercial passenger arrival areas.

Universal Aviation at Linate
Universal Aviation services 60 percent of all business aviation traffic in northern Italy. Frequent arrivals to Linate are Coca-Cola, American Express and Sony, as well as executive charter firms PrivatAir and TAG Aviation. “Linate is a destination airport for northern Italy businessman, and not necessarily a staging area,” said Lorena Carraro, director general of Universal Aviation-Italy, a subsidiary of Universal Weather & Aviation. “Rome is important for the movies, political flights, the military and for tourists.”

Universal operates at Milano Malpensa, Milano Linate and Roma-Ciampino Airports, unique for Italy in providing coordination services directly to clients. Carraro has managed the office for 15 years, now with 12 staff and one freelance agent, most with a decade-plus of experience. Only two years ago Linate operated from 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., but now it’s open 24 hr, and with growth projected at 30 percent this year, hiring is a concern.

“We have to determine how many people to hire–maybe three. We also have to increase training, and the first thing is the language,” said Carraro. “English is the first requirement, and we’ll try for another. We must explain to new people that they will be working in aviation and must have an open mentality to work on Saturday, Sunday, Christmas, anytime.” Summertime is critical, seeing the departure of employees just as volumes swell. “We have to create a good feeling and explain what makes a customer happy, and that makes employees happy,” she said. Universal adheres to FAIRO rules, the contract of Italian airline employees.

To assess service, Universal relies on unsolicited feedback. “We talk with the crew and passengers and they let us know immediately how they are served,” said Carraro. “Our company rates itself the same strengths, as those in the AIN European FBO survey,” which placed Universal as the only top-rated Italian firm, whether or not that defines its role. “We are not really an FBO, so it’s hard to receive feedback directly from pilots. They are usually talking about handling services.”

With volume comes the question of drawing new competition, but in northern Italy this happens only with a government nod. “Everything should be possible, but how many handling companies can we have at Linate in the future?” asked Cararo. “That’s a government decision–a ministry of transport decision.” ATA handles business aircraft at Linate, while G.S. Aviation is the sole source to Malpensa and Aeroporti di Roma has exclusive rights to Rome-Ciampino. “The point is the quality of the service–it’s a standard quality. You don’t have a choice,” she explained.

Carraro said Universal’s distinction is helping European Union operators clear the accounting tangle of the 20-percent value added tax (VAT) on fuel. “I can explain VAT for days and days,” she said of the labrynthian topic. Carraro helped Universal to become the only Italian servicer to develop an internal system to issue invoices without VAT inclusive, saving EU traffic the effort for refund and recovery. Arrangements for VAT-less invoicing may include U.S. companies by year-end.

ATA: FBO at Linate
Ali Trasporti Aerei (ATA), part of Gruppo Acquamarcia, provides general aviation handling at Linate. It also has an airlines and facilities division. As exclusive operator of the Milan airports, in 1962 S.E.A. granted ATA the sole FBO rights for Linate, thinking it a nuisance. Now, S.E.A. finds itself competing against ATA’s parent on the commercial side.

ATA’s Dosi coordinates 35 staff at Linate, including administration. ATA services the five Linate-based air-taxi companies and an undisclosed number of private aircraft, including two Avanti’s operated by tiremaker Firelli. Business aircraft charter flights carried 49,281 passengers to or from Linate last year on ALBA, Eurojet Italia, Transair, CTA and Siror. ATA, on request, services flights outside the normal handling hours of 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., although customs and police services run 24 hr. Last year, ATA pumped nearly 2.5 million gallons of fuel.

Dosi figures the company’s monopoly position serves customers well, though he doesn’t ask them directly. “A university in Lugano may develop a customer survey for us,” he said. One group that votes with their feet, at least with their forks, are executives from local office parks. In-flight caterer Margo, working with ATA, runs the Linate terminal restaurant, offering freshly shaped pasta and Italian confections. “I’ve been urging the caterer for years to promote his service with a brochure, and finally that brochure is ready,” said Dosi. Competitor Lufthansa Sky Chef has made steady inroads.

Similarly, neither ATA nor Universal actively promote landing at Linate through trade fairs or direct ads. Dosi laments the lack of public awareness of the benefits of business aviation, pointing to the weak Italian business aviation association. “We stress the value of the time saved through GA, but the passengers are trying to collect miles from frequent-flier programs,” said Dosi.

“Private aviation can’t award those miles,” he said. “These passengers are important business people with schedules to keep but they choose a routing that pays airline miles.” He considered the role of advocates and brokers, but said, “Brokers don’t generate any new interest in bizav, or say that this is a less expensive form of transportation. Brokers go to existing customers to try to use their downtime to help them make ownership more affordable, but these people are already converted.” Dosi calculated the average load across all Linate movements to be only 1.2. “Often, just the pilot,” he said.

He explained that Italian general aviation boomed in the 1980s, then dropped off throughout the 1990s because of the bloated state of taxes on Italian aircraft operators, as well as the effect of organized crime and corruption. “Companies started selling their aircraft or offering leasebacks or management for hire,” said Dosi. “There was corruption in that period to avoid state taxes. Subsidiaries would own or manage their own aircraft–a kind of shell company that rents only to the single customer.” Dosi said he figured such corruption ebbed by the late 1990s and suggested that commercial charter and private flights, defined as carrying fewer than 20 passengers, will return solidly.

To meet passenger needs, he cited plans for terminal expansion and redesign, which are on indefinite hold because of differences with police requirements. “They want our customs area to have X-ray machines, and to separate the passenger areas from operations and into departing and arrival areas,” said Dosi. No dates have been set for the expansion and the transport ministry has made no attempt to resolve conflicts in the planned space, including the disposition of an exhibit area that consumes much of the terminal’s real estate.

“The problem is that the passengers stand at an empty desk rather than taking advantage of the seating we have in the back,” said Dosi. The circular structure served the recent Formula One Grand Prix registration, which saw 500 helicopter movements on a single day but lies idle most of the year. “We want to use the control area for exhibitions,” said Dosi, but that plan is also stalled awaiting ministry decree.

Back-burnered plans include the addition of 12 aircraft parking spots, with expansion of the apron from 866,500 sq ft to more than 2.9 million sq ft. In the interim, the rear apron is roughly apportioned for use by aircraft making visits of up to two days while the prime spots are for transients remaining for fewer than four hours. Dosi’s wish list includes a covered loading area given Milan’s fierce summer rains, and secure vehicle parking in the occasionally rough neighborhood.

If terminal work develops, a priority is converting the VIP passenger lounge into a pilot crew room. Meanwhile, he said, “rather than create crew rest rooms here, we have an agreement with Novotel, about 2.5 miles away, for a day rate of $70.”

ATA’s volume is highest in the summertime, in parallel with weekend flights to Sardinia and the late summer onset of the Milanese fashion industry spectacles. One casualty of the smartly dressed city is unsightly safety aids. “It’s hard to get our line guys to wear hearing protection,” said Dosi.

ALBA: Charter at Linate
Pietro Zaccari’s ALBA operates a GV, GIV and a Hawker 800XP. All are decorated in deep brown tones selected by ALBA’s staff designer, with some seats and interior fittings interchangeable. The 16-seat GIV has one section convertible to two queen beds, though more than 80 percent of missions it flies are less than 90 min and many are one hour–Milan to Geneva, Paris, Madrid, Frankfurt or Rome for example. Despite the short stage lengths, Zaccari said catering is a priority, especially at midday. A maintenance technician doubles as a cabin attendant.

Zaccari noted the low load factor for business aircraft at Linate, but he said ALBA is an exception, averaging four passengers per mission. The GIV costs $5,500 an hour and the GV runs about $5,900 an hour.

Though Pietro Zaccari hopes the aging terminal will be upgraded, his own ALBA lounge is plush and inviting, he said. “Still, you can’t drive a vehicle right to the aircraft as in the U.S.,” and passengers must offload to a spartan bus for customs processing at Linate’s common area.

Zaccari hires first officers where possible, thinking them less apt to have learned poor habits. “We want at least 1,500 hours and to make captain you need at least 2,000,” he said. ALBA performs its own ground training in coordination with SimuFlite. After a two-year effort it has become the first Italian firm beyond Alitalia to become JAR OPS 1 certified. Maintenance is performed at Jet Aviation in Basel, Switzerland.

Pilots average 40 to 45 hr per month, and ALBA’s fleet will accumulate about 2,400 hr this year. ALBA employs 13 pilots and seven maintenance techs.

G.S. Aviation at Malpensa Airport
Silvano Galli started G.S. Aviation in 1987 in two well-worn Italian air force hangars at Malpensa, following 35 years as production and experimental test pilot for Siai-Marchetti. Galli shares management duties with his son, an Alitalia captain. G.S. Aviation is a fueler, caterer and full-service crew and passenger handler for all GA aircraft at Malpensa. It handles some 220 flights monthly, about 2,500 flights a year, 20 percent of which are U.S.-based.

Galli said his service philosophy is based on his own experience and demands as a pilot. “I flew from Milan to Singapore for Marchetti 169 times. I flew in every Paris Air Show since 1959.” Galli, 69, is writing his memoirs and will include tales collected during his career test flying a total of 1,260 Marchettis.

“I wouldn’t wait, and we don’t want passengers waiting more than 30 seconds in an aircraft after it taxies in. Pilots want speed and efficiency.” Galli scoffs at the notion of promoting the proximity of Linate to Milan’s center, saying the advantage is lost when the long taxiing distance prior to debarking from the airplane is taken into consideration. He also differentiates between Malpensa and Linate, relegating Linate for downtown business only, saying those visiting the industrial and suburban office sectors of Milan favor Malpensa.

Galli estimates general aviation loading at Malpensa to be a healthy six to seven passengers. “It’s more than at Linate because people travel here from longer distances and in larger aircraft. For example, Benetton staff comes in from Treviso to visit the local plant or Whirlpool reps come from the U.S. to its plant some six miles from here.” Largely, eastern Milan is populated by service company headquarters while in the west there are clusters of manufacturing and consumer-product companies, which is reflected in business aviation traffic.

He figures Malpensa is split evenly among business and leisure travelers, even those arriving in GA aircraft. “The location here favors the lakes and the ski resorts in Como and Lugano. In winter it’s business and skiing, in summer it’s business and golfing.” Just before AIN’s visit, actor Arnold Schwarzenegger had touched down at G.S. Aviation in his GIV, en route to a resort in the Italian Alps.

Given the frequent bus shuttle and direct rail links from Milan, Galli downplays the remoteness of Malpensa. “Even commercial passengers on Alitalia, in most fare classes, can connect to downtown by train at no charge.”

In his 14 years at Malpensa, Galli has seen the dimension of the general aviation airplane “improve.” “It used to be Citations but now it’s the Learjet 60, and a higher volume inbound of passengers.” Typical transient aircraft are large models such as the Challenger and Gulfstream IV, but he has serviced Global Expresses on his own ramp, and an Airbus A340 owned by the Emir of Qatar on the main apron.

He has also seen a bit of cleansing of the corruption and danger that have scarred Malpensa. “As recently as five years ago, many Americans would request armed guards. We did have a problem with security here. Now they don’t bother; even the Arabs don’t request extra security.” Galli points to his neighbors on the ramp: a military reserve to the north, police to the west and armed guards employed by Agusta on the south.

Galli briefly recalled the previous concern with organized crime operating ramp services, preventing competition for airport business. “Going to work at an Italian airport used to be hard, but now with the infusion of European regulation we are all certified,” he said.

Customs procedures at Malpensa, curiously, are less stringent than those at small-town Linate. “We follow customs requirements only for flights from Switzerland; within the EU it’s like a domestic flight in the U.S., and even under special agreement with England there are no control requirements. They need only to register with the police.”

Galli rounds his servicing business with a flight school operating four Marchetti 205s and a Piper. G.S. Aviation also sells Lektro aircraft towing vehicles, selling as many as 15 units yearly. For maintenance, the shop is JAR 145 certified.

He said his main improvement to the facility is the installation five years ago of new fuel tanks, allowing refueling within minutes of landing. “General aviation aircraft used to wait up to three hours to refuel,” he said.