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Milan Malpensa Airport Review and History

Published on July 15, 2012,

Milan Malpensa Airport is the largest of the three facilities that serve the Milan metropolitan area. Located 25 miles (40km) north-west of the city centre, the airfield has been associated with aviation for more than 100 years. It all began on May 27, 1910 when the Caproni brothers flew their first ‘flying machine’, the Cal biplane, from what was little more than a field. In the years that followed, many prototypes took-off from here and eventually a more formal airfield was established. Both Gianni Caproni and Giovanni Agusta established factories on the new site, and it quickly developed into the largest aircraft production centre in Italy. During the 1920s and 1930s, the airfield hosted two squadrons of the Regia Aeronautica Italiana (Italy’s Air Force) and its flying school.

In September 1943, Malpensa airfield was taken over by the Luftwaffe. Soon after their arrival the Germans laid the airfield’s first concrete runway. After the cessation of hostilities, manufacturers and politicians of the Milan and Varese regions, led by banker Benigno Ajroldi of Banca Alto Milanese, restored the airfield with the aim of making it an industrial fulcrum for post-war recovery. The main runway, which was heavily damaged by German troops as they retreated from northern Italy, was rebuilt and extended to 5,905ft (1,800m) and a small wooden terminal was constructed to protect goods and passengers from the weather.

Post-War Development

Malpensa’s official opening to commercial traffic took place on November 21, 1948 as ‘Aeroporto Cittadi Busto Arsizio’, although Belgian national flag carrier Sabena had started flying to Brussels from here a year earlier. On February 2, 1950 Trans World Airlines (TWA) became the first company to fly long-haul flights from Malpensa, using Lockheed Constellations on services to New York/Idlewild. A change of ownership occurred in 1952 when the Municipality of Milan took control of the airport’s operator, the Societa Aeroporto di Busto Arsizio, and changed its name to Societa Esercizi Aeroportuali SpA (SEA). Once in full control, SEA decided to develop Malpensa as an international and intercontinental gateway, while Milan’s other airport, Linate, was tasked with handling domestic services only. Between 1958 and 1962 a new terminal was constructed at Malpensa and the facility’s two parallel runways were extended to 12,845ft (3,915m) in length, becoming the longest in Europe at that time.

By the beginning of the 1960s, major European carriers such as British European Airways, Air France, Lufthansa and Alitalia had moved the majority of their services to Linate, which was just 7 miles (11km) from Milan’s city centre, making it much easier to reach for passengers. This left Malpensa with just a handful of intercontinental links, charter flights and cargo operations. It was the beginning of a period of good fortune for the city facility while Malpensa suffered a decline in commercial traffic, with passenger numbers dropping from 525,000 in 1960 to just 331,000 by 1965. It was destined to play second fiddle to Linate for another 20 years.

However, by the mid-1980s Linate was handling seven million passengers per year and, with only a short single runway and limited parking slots, it had reached saturation point. With no land available for expansion, an alternative solution was sought.

SEA quickly found that developing Malpensa was the only practical alternative. By the end of 1985, a law had been passed by the Italian Parliament that paved the way for the reorganisation of the Milan airport system. Malpensa was designated as the centre for all air services covering northern Italy, while Linate was downgraded to a domestic and short-haul facility. ‘Malpensa 2000′, as the plan was called, included the construction of a new terminal as well as developing fast and efficient connections to Milan’s city centre. The European Union recognised the project as one of the 14 “essential to the development of the Union” and provided €200 million to help finance the work. Construction started in November 1990, with Milan’s state-of-the-art airport was opened eight years later.

Alitalia Moves In

During the night of October 24-25, 1998 Alitalia moved the majority of its fleet from Rome/Fiumicino – where it had flown from for over 50 years – to Milan/Malpensa, which then started a new lease of life as the Italian flag carrier’s main hub. Alitalia added up to 488 movements and 42,000 passengers a day at the facility which, by the end of that year, had handled 5.92 million passengers, an increase of more than two million over the previous year’s figure. In 1999 it recorded a spectacular leap to 16.97 million and by 2007 numbers had reached 23.9 million. Efficient rail links to and from the airport from two different stations in Milan (Centrale and Cadorna) ensured easy access while the nearby A8 motorway had an extra lane added in each direction to help speed-up traffic into and out of the city centre.

Milan/Malpensa had firmly established itself as one of Italy’s leading facilities, but it wasn’t standing still. A new development plan was launched by SEA, valued at €1.4 billion, which included a third pier for Terminal 1 and the construction of a third runway. However, this was not enough to keep the national carrier happy. In a decision that shocked the population of northern Italy, Alitalia announced that it was moving its hub operations back to Rome/Fiumicino with immediate effect. Many Milanese believed the Italian carrier had betrayed them with its decision – but the airline countered by saying it was forced to move due to the high operating costs at Malpensa. Alitalia didn’t pull out of Milan entirely; it continued to fly several domestic and European services from here as well as three intercontinental flights (to New York, Tokyo and Sao Paulo). But the airport lost around 20% of its daily movements, a decrease from 700 to 550, which resulted in only 19.2 million passengers passing through its doors during 2008. It continued to suffer during 2009, the international financial crisis and higher fuel prices meaning passenger figures fell below those set in 1997, with only 17.6 million people using the facility.

Milan Malpensa AirportFor SEA, Alitalia’s move came as a complete shock. But after a summer of coming to terms with the reality of the withdrawal, the publicly-owned group (its major shareholder is the municipality of Milan) decided to launch an all-out publicity programme, aggressively marketing the airport and its capabilities around the world. This campaign was deemed a success (in the face of Alitalia’s departure): in the three years after spring 2008, a total of 34 new passenger and cargo operators started flying to and from the airport – including low-cost carrier easyJet, which has made Malpensa its most important base after London/Gatwick with a total of 17 of its fleet of Airbus A319s based here. The airline currently flies services to 43 cities across Italy and Europe.

Hub Operations

Today, the number of destinations directly served from Malpensa has reached 180, a significant increase even over the Alitalia era when the figure reached 168. Still, the airport remains very much a point-to-point facility. German national carrier Lufthansa, through its Italian subsidiary. Lufthansa Italia, tried to establish a hub here with nine A319s but, after a two-year struggle, it announced in May 2011 that it was stopping all flights with effect from the start of its winter 2011 schedule.

Following Alitalia’s move back to Rome, Malpensa lost a large percentage of its connecting passenger business. To fill the gap, SEA launched its ViaMilano project in June 2011, which initially involved 2,400 travellers and 1,300 pieces of luggage. The scheme was designed to make up for the fact that it no longer had a hub carrier, so SEA itself has started to act as the hub operation, directly managing passengers and their baggage between flights. For example, a passenger arriving on an easyJet service from Athens can continue their journey to Moscow on Aeroflot, with SEA managing the connection at Malpensa and ensuring luggage and passenger are delivered to the appropriate aircraft on time.

The service increases the weekly connection options at the airport from around 2,000 to approximately 3,800. To make all this possible, SEA has created new software on its website (www.flyviamilano. eu) allowing passengers to check the many combinations of flights between city pairs that transit through Malpensa on any given day. Once passengers have disembarked at either Terminal 1 or 2, they collect their bags from the carousel and drop them off at the ViaMilano desks situated just a few feet away in the arrivals hall. Here they receive a ViaMilano card, which gives them access to the fast track at the security controls, plus a ten-euro coupon to spend in the terminal’s shops. Dedicated signs throughout the terminals ease travellers’ journeys to the check-in area for their next flight (easyJet customers receive a boarding pass directly at the ViaMilano desk) while their bags are transferred to the connecting service. And to help speed connections between the facility”s two terminals, SEA has also increased the frequency of free shuttle-bus links to one every seven minutes.

SEA announced last year that, before the end of 2011, it was planning to launch a partnership with travel portal www.volaregratis.com that will allow customers to purchase seat tickets online as well as taking advantage of the connection service. SEA is forecasting that up to 500,000 passengers will take advantage of the ViaMilano connection programme during 2012.

“Through ViaMilano, we guarantee passengers the utmost flexibility and convenience when travelling through Malpensa,” commented Guilio De Metrio, SEA’s chief operating officer. “It is the passenger, not the airlines or the international alliances, that decides the price of the ticket; it allows him or her to choose the best combination of flights that are available to and from the airport.” For example, on June 20, 2011, the best price offered by Expedia on the Palermo to Bangkok route was €980 compared to €732 through ViaMilano (Palermo-Milan on easyJet then Milan-Bangkok on Thai Airways International). On the same day, flying from Catania to Singapore cost €1,200 with Expedia compared to €780 with ViaMilano (Catania-Milan on Windjet then Milan-Singapore on Singapore Airlines). SEA is also launching an insurance policy: for ten euros per person, it will protect passengers in case they miss their connection due to the late arrival of the flight into Malpensa. As part of the policy, SEA is also agreeing to rearrange a seat on the next available aircraft and cover the costs of an overnight stay in the Sheraton Hotel situated in front of Terminal 1. Milan/Malpensa airport appears to be recovering well from Alitalia’s decision to move its operations back to Rome. It has bounced back with new carriers establishing new routes -and, with new initiatives such as SEA’s ViaMilano programme, the airport looks set for a bright future.

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