Amsterdam Schiphol: Happy 40th birthday

20 Mar 2007 by Alex McWhirter
When Schiphol's new airport terminal opened in 1967 it was an aviation wonder. I know, because as an awe-struck teenager I purposely routed myself via Amsterdam to get a glimpse of it. At a time when Heathrow possessed two elderly terminals, Frankfurt resembled a regional airport and Paris CDG wasn't even open for business, Schiphol gave passengers a view of what aviation would be like in the 21st century. Not only was the terminal bright, modern and efficient, it was the first airport in Europe where practically every flight used an airbridge so passengers didn't have to face the elements. Schiphol also defined the single-terminal concept which makes the transfer process simpler – how many major hubs, 40 years on, offer one-terminal simplicity? And, like it or not, Schiphol pioneered airport shopping on a big scale. For the first time, a major hub airport became a fashionable shopping centre with passengers proudly toting those yellow "See, Buy, Fly" bags worldwide. Today, Schiphol boasts more than 100 shopping outlets. But perhaps Schiphol's main contribution is the way in which it and national airline KLM worked in tandem to develop a global network (it was even rumoured Schiphol's colours suited the KLM blue, making every other airline parked on the apron appear "awkward"). The Dutch home market is limited in scope, so KLM and Schiphol grew by encouraging other nationals to use their facilities to reach the world. The policy was emulated to great effect by Singapore Changi and SIA in the early Eighties (the Dutch helped design Changi), by Dubai/Emirates in the Nineties and more recently by CDG/Air France. But Schiphol hasn't won innumerable passenger awards by standing still. The past 40 years have seen it enlarge the current terminal and add additional runways to more than meet future demand With 46.1 million passengers a year, Schiphol ranks in size below Heathrow, Frankfurt and Paris CDG but it's the only one to boast five runways. You can fly from Schiphol to more than 260 destinations in over 90 countries with major passenger flows to and from North America and Asia and within Europe itself. Thanks to the one-terminal concept, transfer times continue to remain attractive: 40 minutes for short and 50 minutes for long-haul flights. Home airline KLM and its Skyteam alliance partners such as Air France and Northwest remain the dominant carriers. KLM alone handles 22 million passengers and more than 60 per cent of these are changing planes. Flights operate in seven "waves" throughout the day, a concept which spreads demand, making it easier for the baggage handling and air traffic control systems. With departures to Amsterdam from airports ranging between Aberdeen in the north and Southampton in the south, the UK is a major traffic producer. Canny regional travellers bound for the outside world choose to transit Amsterdam rather than London. Recognising that budget airlines are a flourishing market sector, the airport has also opened a section in the terminal especially for them. It's hard to imagine such a facility being added at Heathrow, Frankfurt or Paris CDG. Schiphol makes arrivals easier with iris recognition for frequent travellers. Should you need to stay overnight there's a five-star Sheraton hotel adjoining the terminal, as well as a clutch of other international hotels close by. The airport train station offers local trains to Amsterdam and many other towns and cities throughout Holland. International trains run directly to Antwerp, Brussels and Paris. They also serve Germany with a change in Amsterdam's Central station. The big news later this year is the opening of a new high-speed service (in which KLM has a 10 per cent stake), making it more convenient to reach nearby Belgium. Hourly trains will reach Antwerp in one hour (currently 125 mins) and Brussels in 90 mins (150 mins). The airport aims to make the transfer from plane to high-speed train and vice versa as smooth as possible. But not everything in the garden is perfect. Having a single terminal is convenient in one sense but the airport must operate seven piers to keep the concept. It means that some flights will be parked a considerable distance apart. Also the airport's fifth, 3,900-metre Polderbaan runway, which cost e340 million and opened in 2003, is state-of-the-art but located 7km away, almost in Harlem. When flights use this runway it's not unknown for captains to advise passengers of the 15 minutes of taxi-ing to reach it. Schiphol continues to work hard to improve its product for transfer passengers. New business traveller services include re-energise options (spa facilities) and a short-sleep concept to be introduced this year. It aims to remain the preferred European hub.
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