A new alliance with Paris Charles de Gaulle and the opening of a record number of airport hotels demonstrates Schiphol’s ambition in difficult times, says Alex McWhirter.

Alliances are old hat in the airline business, but alliances between airports are still novel.

So the fact that Amsterdam Schiphol, the fourth largest airport in Europe, and Paris Charles de Gaulle, the second largest, plan a get together is big news for travellers. Both airports were hoping to reach an agreement by the end of November with the aim of improving their competitiveness by developing a dual-hub. As a result of the alliance, each airport would take an 8 per cent stake in the other.

The synergies are there because Air France (based at Paris CDG) and KLM (based at Schiphol) have learnt to market themselves as one airline – Air France/KLM. If this alliance does go ahead it promises travellers a mammoth choice of global destinations and flight schedules, which can only be good news.

But that’s for the future. The past year has been a uniquely challenging one for Schiphol as several consecutive years of growth in passenger traffic have slowed in the face of the financial crisis and, to a lesser extent, the Dutch government’s imposition of a so-called “environmental tax” in July.

A spokesperson for Schiphol airport says: “We have already been seeing a decrease in passenger numbers since just before July. And it’s true that the introduction of the environmental tax has been a further contributory factor. To avoid the tax, some tour operators and airlines have moved some of their flights abroad, so we do not expect to see any growth in passenger numbers this year [2008]. Right now, like any airport, we begin to see the effects of a more general recession. Therefore, we don’t expect to see passenger growth in 2009. Indeed, we may even see a slight decrease.”

With regard to the environmental tax it must be stressed that it is not being applied to passengers in transit. That’s just as well, as travellers changing planes at Schiphol comprise over 60 per cent of the airport’s business. Instead, the new tax is payable only by passengers who start their trips from Amsterdam.

It means that a passenger flying with, say, KLM from Norwich to Milan via Amsterdam pays no environmental tax, but someone flying from Amsterdam to Milan would pay €11.45. A traveller taking KLM between Manchester and Tokyo via Amsterdam would be exempt, whereas one flying Amsterdam to Tokyo stands to pay a hefty €45. The lower tax rate covers all EU and European destinations up to around a 2,500km radius, including Turkey and locations in North Africa. Places further afield would be liable for the higher rate.

Nevertheless, despite current challenges, the reasons for using Schiphol are still compelling. The airport offers flights to 213 destinations with 82 airlines. There are a good selection of services to key areas of the world such as the US, India and China, and no fewer than 17 destinations are served in the US by KLM and alliance partners Delta and Northwest Airlines. KLM covers three cities in India, namely Mumbai, Delhi and Hyderabad, although it will be dropping the latter service in February 2009. There are four cities in mainland China served by KLM and China Southern: Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu and Guangzhou. KLM and Cathay Pacific both serve Hong Kong, and Taipei in Taiwan is served by KLM, Eva Air and China Airlines.

Closer to home, we find that the UK is the most popular European destination from Schiphol. That’s partly because of the frequent services between Britain and Holland but also partly because many UK-based travellers use Schiphol, rather than one of the London airports, as their gateway to the outside world. That’s been the case for decades and explains why KLM operates to Amsterdam from no fewer than 14 different UK airports. This will increase to 15 from March 29, when KLM adds Liverpool to its network.

The Amsterdam-London route is the busiest single service from the Dutch capital with flights going to five London-area airports. Services to Heathrow are covered by British Airways, Bmi and KLM, Gatwick by British Airways and Easyjet, London City by KLM, VLM and BA, Stansted by Easyjet, and Luton also by Easyjet.

The London City route is going from strength to strength thanks to this airport’s handy location near Canary Wharf, and quick train links to the City and central London. The present three carriers plying the route are expected to be joined by a fourth, UK regional carrier Eastern Airways, in early 2009. The carrier is entering the route as part of a deal whereby Belgian airline VLM relinquishes some of its peak-hour slots as part of the agreement allowing it to be taken over by the Air France/KLM group.

Schiphol isn’t as crowded a hub as its rivals but there’s now even less risk of delay thanks to the opening of premium fast lanes for departing passengers. These are in Departure Hall 1 and can be used by business class passengers and premium frequent flyer programme members of KLM, Iberia, Austrian, Scandinavian Airlines and Lufthansa.

Members of Schiphol’s Privium programme (there are over 45,000 of these) can skip the normal queues by using special lanes with iris-scan identification for fast passport and security checks.

It’s characteristic of the airport that even in these conditions it has continued to expand, opening its fourth and fifth hotels in the last 12 months, meaning Schiphol now has more on-airport hotels than any other international hub anywhere in the world. On-airport hotels save time for travellers using the facility as a hub since there’s no need to wait for a transfer bus to take you to your hotel for an overnight stop and none of that uncertainty of waiting for the transfer bus to take you back to the terminal.

On-airport hotels are rare: London Heathrow has only two – the Hilton at T4 and the Sofitel at T5. Paris CDG has only one, the Sheraton serving Terminal 2, which is the home of Air France. (There is no on-airport hotel at CDG Terminal 1). Brussels and Frankfurt only have one hotel at the airport, a Sheraton, in each case. Zurich has a single on-airport hotel, the Radisson SAS, as does Copenhagen, which has a Hilton on site. And it’s a similar scenario at other main airports in North America, the Gulf and Asia.

Two of Schiphol’s on-airport hotels are airside. For transferring passengers, this means they don’t have to spend time clearing all the formalities to go landside on arrival, only to repeat the same process some hours later. It also means that transit travellers who would normally require a Schengen visa, can avoid obtaining one. (Check with the relevant embassy before booking your flight.)

If you do plan to stay airside, ensure any luggage is checked right through. Also bear in mind that these hotels are fairly basic compared with their landside counterparts (a reflection of space limitations within the airport) and suitable only for short stays. You should also remember that nobody will be able to meet you airside unless they too hold ID/passport, flight boarding passes etc.

The two airside properties are the long-standing 33-room Mercure and the new 57-cabin Yotel. The Yotel (yotel.com, tel +44 207 100 1100), a Japanese-style  “capsule” property, is bookable for stays starting from four hours. You can choose either Standard (these are 7 sqm and feature a single bed, a TV and a tiny wet room) Twin or Premium cabins (10 sqm). The latter are less claustrophobic with double beds which retract to make comfy sofas and a decent-sized bathroom. A limited selection of food is available. Rates start from €35 for a four-hour stay in a Standard cabin. A nine-hour overnight stay in a Premium cabin costs from €106.

The Mercure Schiphol Terminal (mercure.com, tel +31 206 041 339) is the airport’s original airside property, and was recently restyled and refurbished. There is a bar but no restaurant. Rates are €85 for stays either between 1000 and 1900 or between 2000 and 0800.

All five of the on-airport properties, both those airside and those landside, are in different price brackets, allowing travellers to choose the best property for their needs or their pockets. The new 230-room Citizen M Hotel Amsterdam Airport, which won the European Hotel Design of 2008 award, is a radical concept billed as a “luxury budget hotel”. It’s accessed by a covered walkway from Zone 4 of the Arrivals area.

Affordability is a key feature of this hotel which focuses on simplicity, comfort and functionality with king-sized beds and high-tech showers. There’s also a 24-hour food and beverage outlet. Bookings can only be made online at citizenm.com, and pricing is based on-demand with rates at slack times priced between €69 and €99, average demand from €100 to €119, and peak demand from €120.

Across an overhead walkway from the main terminal is the 406-room Sheraton Amsterdam Airport Hotel and Conference Centre (sheraton.com, tel +31 203 164 300). This property, which opened in 1997, offers all the normal five-star services and facilities, including food and beverage outlets, a fitness centre and a choice of both Standard and Executive floor rooms. Rates start from €259.

Beyond the Sheraton, and linked by covered walkway, is the 280-room Hilton Amsterdam Airport Schiphol (hilton.com, tel +31 207 104 000), which is Schiphol’s oldest hotel. It’s a first-class property featuring various eateries, a sauna and a gym. There is Standard and Executive floor accommodation. Rates start from €205.

Generally, on-airport hotels (because of the cost of land and concession fees) are pricey but Schiphol has shown that value-for-money accommodation can go hand in hand with convenience. In addition, there are numerous off-airport properties but these require a transfer by bus or taxi.