French Alpine airports draw wealthy crowds

 - August 26, 2009, 8:14 AM

Negative attention has prompted the business aviation industry to promote airplanes as tools of productivity rather than luxurious transportation for the wealthy. However, two French airports–Chambéry and Grenoble–are bucking that trend and specializing in serving wealthy clientèle who like winter stays in nearby ski resorts, including the most exclusive ones such as Courchevel. The two airports are not immune to the effects of the ongoing economic downturn, however.

So far, serving wealthy clients has been big business for both airports. In Chambéry, the emergence of private and business aviation prompted the construction of a dedicated terminal that opened in March 2006. At Grenoble, where the proportion
of leisure (as opposed to business) jets is lower, a similar but smaller terminal opened in December 2007.

Although the exterior of Chambéry’s business aviation terminal is unassuming, the facility is actually quite spectacular. The interior of the 4,300-sq-ft building has the atmosphere of a typical Alps chalet. A coffee vending machine is available in the entrance for limo drivers. For passengers, showcases filled with bottles of fine wine carrying three- or four-digit prices have proved popular.

The airport has streamlined security procedures for passengers, sparing them the requirement of removing their shoes or having their bags searched.

Chambéry’s business aviation terminal opens early in November and closes early in May, manager Isabelle Simonneau explained to AIN. It can open at other times of the year on request.

Terminal B at Grenoble is less cozy than its Chambéry counterpart. Nonetheless, thanks to a partnership with a local furniture boutique, it looks up to date. In Grenoble, Terminal B is open from December to April, according to manager Catherine Amat.

Helicopter transfers to ski resorts are offered from both airports.

Despite the services the airports offer for the wealthy, the rich do not take priority over other passengers. On the contrary, parking stands are allocated to business jets only after budget charter operators and airlines have parked their commercial Boeings and Airbuses. At Chambéry airport, this translates into limited space, although the airport did expand the ramp last October. At both airports, requests for business jet arrivals on Saturday morning are simply bumped. Moreover, in Chambéry, Sunday arrivals are prohibited, and Saturday-afternoon arrivals are subject to surcharges.

Last year 11,000 business aviation passengers walked through Chambéry’s gates. They numbered 5,100 in Grenoble, where expansion plans for Terminal B have been postponed.

Around 50 percent of Chambéry’s passengers come from the UK, while Russia and France account for 30 and 20 percent, respectively. A number of business jets in Chambéry are in the large-cabin category or higher. NetJets Europe’s aircraft, often Citation Excels, bring the average size down. A joint venture between French groups Vinci and Keolis runs both Chambéry and Grenoble airports. The airports are taking advantage of some synergies, such as common advertising and communications. The owners of the airports, respectively the Savoie and Isère local authorities, are involved in the airports’ strategy, since they pay for ground infrastructure investment–including so-called business terminals.