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How can healthcare and culture improve airport economic sustainability?

Future Cities Forum has been talking to the Chief Commercial Officer of Zurich Airport, Stefan Gross, about the future for the airport and how other airports can learn to adapt and grow from its example.

This will be an important year for the airport, as the recovery from the pandemic proceeds and it celebrates 75 years since its maiden flight. Stefan described how the pandemic hit the airport business:

'There were of course challenges during the pandemic with number restrictions and running a convention centre in The Circle with a hotel. The rules impacted the numbers we were allowed to operate but thankfully 2021 saw our letting rate return positively and we are now close to 90 per cent. Business at The Circle has bounced back strongly and everything is really coming to life. People like the connectedness of the airport and The Circle. It isn't difficult to find where you have to go and you don't have to bother with taxis - it's a simple walk in one pedestrian zone. Of course, The Circle has appealing architecture and a beautiful park at the back to look out onto, rather than car parks -it's a green natural environment.

Above: The Circle, Zurich Airport - park side view (from Zurich Airport)

'We have managed the staffing issues around the pandemic very well and the accompanying infrastructure of having The Circle on site next to the airport has really helped our business. We have a good mix of IT, pharmaceutical and banking businesses as tenants in The Circle offices. Yes, some people still want to work remotely but we have very good concepts for distancing in the The Circle building and our co-working space has been very well received. The food and beverage side of our business has been strong. People still want to go out and we have steered away from providing standard restaurant facilities at The Circle with high quality and interesting places to have coffee, drink and eat. Normally, people would not go to an airport just to eat but we now have an established catchment area of the city that we serve, so we are not just a travel hub anymore. People like our environment here, it is safe and clean.'

Above: CGI of The Circle, Zurich Airport (courtesy The Convention Centre, Zurich Airport) - view to food hall and Hyatt Place

Stefan was asked how he was attracting greater numbers to the airport and The Circle using culture as a means:

'We have a 10-day food festival event which has been established in the last couple of years. There are charity dinners and also the chance to experience wine and gin tasting, also menus cooked by apprentices to give them a platform. There is a ticketing system where you have to buy your ticket in advance. We have also had a food market and a light and music festival which lasted 18 days. There were concerts every night and illuminated art work in the park. Last year we had 30,000 people visiting the festival with those attending from the local catchment area too. The Swiss artwork was very instagram-able and it was popular for families, where they could come and have fun on the premises'.

In the anniversary year 2023, Zurich Airport looks back on its long history and the festivities include a big airport festival from September 1-3, an anniversary exhibition and many other highlights.

On June 14, 1948, a Swissair Douglas DC-4 was the first aircraft to take off from Zurich Airport to London - on the airport's only runway 10/28 at the time. Only about five months later, the second runway 16/34 was put into operation and the third runway 14/32 opened in 1976. Over the years, docks B, A and E have been built where there once was a marshland. In five construction phases, Zurich Airport developed into an international transport hub with numerous direct connections to the world's metropolises. On June 14 - the day of the maiden flight - an anniversary exhibition will start in the Airport Shopping area. On the weekend of September 1-3, a big public airport festival will take place. As part of the anniversary year, the airport's history will also be digitally processed and the spotter areas as well as the observation deck will be upgraded.

Could other airports around the world look to learn from the developments at Zurich for sustainable business models? Stefan commented:

'We have had visitors from different airports coming to look at what we have been doing and have had very positive feedback which has centred around the iconic building of The Circle that we have created, because it is perceived as something really beautiful and it needs to endure in this perception over the next 80 years or so. We haven't just created a standard mix of hotel, offices and cafes, but something of a much higher quality. We have created a campus atmosphere where tenants want to exchange information with each other in our dedicated meeting space and we have events for them every month.

'The hospital and healthcare side of The Circle was not easy to set up but there was one deciding factor in our favour. This was the fact that the hospital buildings in the city centre operate out of old infrastructure, buildings that are around 100 years old and are quite spread out with expertise in different buildings and not customer centric. We were asked if we would like to have thirty disciplines in one building, where patients could be examined and then receive treatment much more easily. It was also decided that we were not offering lengthy treatments where patients lie in hospital beds for a long time but offer a walk-in service. So the hospital really needed this new location and one that was close to residential areas - a hospital that is easy to reach at a transportation hub. It is a misconception that most of our business is with foreigners at the health centre, in fact it is only around 3% of our business. Other health areas will now expand in the vicinity and we will see additions to the health offer. The important thing is we have a critical mass of a cluster here, which gives it a good twist.

Stefan was asked whether he had further ambitions for the airport:

'There are things that remain to be done. One of them is to have an education hub. Educational provision was badly hit during the pandemic and more is online now, but I would like to see education for grown-ups and we have our auditorium space for this. We need a minimum number of partners for this. We would also like to see our 'museum space' develop where cultural content can be displayed.

'One issue to be addressed is the development of retail at airport and transport hubs. I was in New York recently and was surprised to see closed restaurants and vacant retail in attractive locations. Similarly discussions over strategies with commercial partners at the airport came up with concerns about what would happen if travel came to a halt again in the future based on worries from the pandemic. Of course it has been 100 years since the world has seen a pandemic like this and we were all mentally unprepared for it. There has now been a bit of an over-reaction and some partners don't want to do the airport environment. We will see over the next two to three years how things need to be re-arranged but my view is that if you are a brand you need attention and eyeballs and transportation hubs have this.

'Swiss Railways has now developed a long retail area at the central station which is doing well. Initially it was criticised for being cold and with a lack of atmosphere but has now created some gravitational force away from the Old Town, where people used to go out. I think it is because people like a generous space where you don't have bottlenecks and feel safe, so these new projects can do a good job.'

Zurich Airport says in the years to come it will remain on the move and wants to be a safe, modern and sustainable airport for future generations. Projects such as the runway extensions or the new dock A are important elements in ensuring safe and high-quality airport operations. The expansion of the landside passenger zones (ELP) will enhance Zurich Airport in the coming years with generous passageways, better logistics processes, new retail spaces and a food hall with outdoor terraces. The sustainable construction of future projects and the replacement of fossil fuels are key components of Flughafen Zürich AG's ambition to reduce its CO2 emissions to net zero by 2040. As a result, Zurich Airport will continue to be Switzerland's gateway to the world, connecting people and places.

Construction work in Zone West is resuming at Zurich Airport. Work was suspended for around two years because of the Covid pandemic. The planned 14 aircraft stands are now being constructed from mid-January at the western side of the airport.

The “Zone West” construction project is not new. Work commenced back in February 2020. The substrate at the western side of the airport was raised and levelled in 2020, and various pipes (wastewater, water and electricity) were laid. However, owing to the Covid pandemic and in order to protect the company’s liquidity, the project was suspended at the end of 2020. The reduced air traffic during the pandemic helped in so far as the stands were not yet needed it states. Now, with the resumed increase in passenger and flight volume and in view of the ten or so-year construction phase for the new Dock A, the aircraft stands will be needed already next year. Construction in Zone West has resumed with further service systems since January this year. The pavement of the new flight operations areas will then be laid, starting in early summer. A total of 14 stands for scheduled and charter aircraft and a parking space for business jets will be built on the western side of the airport. The redesign of Zone West will result in the skating and cycling path around the western edge of the airport being rerouted around the new area. This work will commence in March. The changeover from the old to the new route will be seamless. The new stands at the western side of the airport are set to become operational in autumn 2024.

The plane spotters’ hill with the Heli Grill will remain at its old location during the first phase of construction. Owing to the changes in Zone West it will be replaced by a new viewing platform a little further to the north, probably in autumn 2023, which will offer a better view of flight operations and the runway intersection. A seamless transition from the plane spotters’ hill to the viewing platform should be ensured, based on the current planning status.

Below: the Heli Grill at Zurich Airport


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