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Moscow Points the Way With Airport Competition

01/12/2008 23:20

A heated battle for passengers between the Russian capital's main airports offers an unlikely model of competition for the aviation industry.


In most cities, airports are monopolies. Even in cities that have more than one, including New York, Paris and Tokyo, airports are usually owned by the same operator. That means airlines can rarely make the kind of choices passengers take for granted, such as choosing an airport for its efficiency, shopping or lounges.


Not so in Moscow, where two international airports, Domodedovo and Sheremetyevo, owned by rival organizations, battle for business. The result is lower fees, better service and fast-improving facilities all around.


Domodedovo Airport, for example, recently convinced several top airlines to make it their Russian base, thanks to a major modernization that added more than 20 new restaurants, jewelry boutiques and a shop where passengers can rent DVDs to watch in booths.


Sheremetyevo Airport responded by building a fast rail link to Moscow, complete with a Starbucks at the airport station.


Moscow's airport rivalry highlights a paradox of the global aviation industry: Airlines compete fiercely with each other for customers, but they face many monopolist suppliers, such as air-traffic control systems, fuel distributors and airports. Resulting costs and poor services get passed on to travelers.


Regulators world-wide are starting to tackle the issue -- and some see Moscow as a paradigm.


Britain's competition authority, for example, last year considered breaking up BAA, the company that runs London's three big airports. In testimony before the regulator, officials from the International Air Transport Association, a trade group, cited Moscow as evidence of the benefits that competition could bring London's airport system. IATA testified that fees at Moscow's fast-growing, privately owned Domodedovo Airport are as much as 20% lower than at Sheremetyevo, the state-owned hub of flag carrier Aeroflot.


The U.K. listened. Bowing to government pressure, BAA's Spanish owner Ferrovia SA now plans to sell London's second-biggest airport, Gatwick. British Airways PLC and other big customers are too entrenched at Heathrow to switch to Gatwick, but airlines say competition could prompt airport managers to trim fees and start to resolve problems such as chronic fuel-supply shortages.


"I'd love to have competing airports everywhere in the world," says Bruno Matheu, executive vice president for marketing at Franco-Dutch carrier Air France-KLM SA, an Aeroflot partner in the SkyTeam airline alliance. Air France-KLM uses Sheremetyevo in Moscow.


Moscow's airport market didn't develop overnight.


Until recently, few big airports world-wide were worse than Sheremetyevo, the Soviet Union's international gateway, built for the 1980 Olympics. Checking in for a flight could take hours. So could driving jammed roads to the airport, which lacked rail connection.


During Russia's privatization drive of the 1990s, local investors bought Domodedovo, which was previously Moscow's airport serving Soviet Central Asia. The investors, grouped into an upstart charter-airline operator, East Line Group, renovated a terminal at Domodedovo and oversaw construction of a train line to Moscow.


East Line charged airlines landing and operating fees that undercut Sheremetyevo by around 30%. For passengers, Domodedovo's rail link guaranteed a 40-minute trip to downtown Moscow. Private Russian carriers, largely frozen out of Aeroflot's base at Sheremetyevo, expanded quickly at the spacious Domodedovo.


Get the full story at Wall Street Journal



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