Shortly after 10 p.m. in Frankfurt, Peter Meany settled into his seat on Qantas Airways Ltd. (QAN) flight QF6, looking forward to reuniting with his family in Sydney for his son’s birthday after a two-week business trip across Europe.
Meany, a 38 year-old fund manager with Qantas frequent-flier status, would miss the party. As the plane crawled to the runway, passengers were surprised to learn that they were five minutes over the last permitted takeoff time and would need to turn back. Frustrated and tired, Meany and his fellow travelers spilled back into the deserted airport building.
“People knew they weren’t going to see their families as planned, or wouldn’t make their meetings,” Meany said. “Bad weather is unavoidable, but I haven’t been in a situation like this in 20 years of flying.”
Meany is among more than 28,000 passengers who have been left stuck on the outskirts of Germany’s financial capital since Frankfurt introduced the night-flight ban in October 2011. While creating a steady stream of involuntary guests for local hotels, the directive has eaten into Deutsche Lufthansa AG (LHA)’s earnings and encourages long-distance passengers to travel via Dubai, where operations run around the clock.
The traffic ban between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. came into effect after Frankfurt added a fourth runway and residents complained about increased noise in one of Germany’s most densely populated areas. While the airfield is a good 20-minute car ride from the inner city, it’s surrounded by smaller towns, with aircraft swooping in at short intervals.
Fraport AG, which operates Europe’s third-busiest hub, has been forced to abort at least two evening flights a week on average since the ban came into effect. The restriction is particularly irksome for passengers without a visa, who can’t leave the premises and have to spend the night on camp beds in the airport hall. Others are put up in hotels by the airlines.
Lufthansa, which has its main operations in Frankfurt, estimates the ban chips away at net income by a “mid double-digit million euro amount” every year. The burden comes on top of an aviation tax levied on Lufthansa in Germany and Austria, which cost the company 362 million euros last year.
The airline canceled 77 weekly flights and moved 112 to earlier take-offs to create a large enough buffer, and now operates its last scheduled flight at 10:15 p.m. Chief Executive Officer Christoph Franz said Lufthansa is also taking an image hit, as the passenger experience is typically associated with the airline rather than the airport.
“Who would consider completely closing the most important Autobahn junctions or a train station at night?” Franz asked. “Only efficient infrastructure guarantees Germany’s connection to the world, and that requires open hubs and competitive operating hours as practiced at other global airports.”
Frankfurt does provide some wiggle room. Authorities can allow takeoffs past 11 p.m. and before midnight if the delay suffered is not the airline’s responsibility and goes beyond technical difficulties.
Western Europe’s once undisputed hubs have witnessed a steady erosion of their status, squeezed from the one end by a lack of expansion space and stricter rules, and from the other by airports in the Middle East that have become the transit points of choice for global travelers.
In the long-haul market, the bases of Emirates, Qatar Airways and Etihad Airways PJSC grabbed a 15 percent share of air traffic from Europe to Asia-Pacific in 2012, with Europe-Asia traffic routed via the Middle East growing at about 20 percent per year, according data compiled by Amadeus.
“We must watch out not to lose sight of the strengths and opportunities this airport offers to the economy,” Florian Rentsch, the economy minister of the federal state of Hesse, said of Frankfurt. “It’s important that this industry has a good general economic framework when competing against fast-growing hubs like Istanbul or Dubai.”
Among the few beneficiaries of the night-flight ban are the Frankfurt airport hotels, which wouldn’t normally be hot tourist targets, wedged between runways and the constant buzz of the Autobahn. Lufthansa had to put up 25 percent more passengers in hotels in the first half of 2012 compared with a year earlier. The airline permanently blocks about 500 hotel rooms for passengers.
“We have always profited from exceptional situations like technical difficulties or delays,” said Sabine Daechert, a spokeswoman for the Sheraton hotel at the airport. “Of course some of those guests are stressed out and annoyed if they miss appointments or their vacation is off to a bad start.”
None of Germany’s six largest airports, including Munich and Dusseldorf, allow large passenger planes to operate past midnight, data collected by airports association ADV show.
London Heathrow, Europe’s busiest, has no blanket ban, though noise restrictions apply and effectively limit operations to about 16 landings between 4:30 a.m. and 6 a.m. Concern about disturbance from aircraft has also stymied expansion plans and led to calls for an alternative hub in the Thames estuary.
The rules in Europe contrast with the restrictions-free environment provided by Middle East airports, where Dubai International has almost doubled traffic since 2007, putting it on a path to match Heathrow by the end of 2013. CEO Paul Griffiths said in March his only objective is to ensure nothing constrains the aviation industry.
“It’s a competitive environment for airlines, and passengers today have more choices,” said Meany. “You can hub through Dubai rather than Heathrow or Frankfurt, which is what I’m doing more often. There is no curfew in Dubai.”
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