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Improving surface access is a commercial and environmental challenge facing airports across the globe, write ICF’s Angus Reid-Kay and Rob Rushmer.

To focus on airlines and the development of an airport’s route network would provide only a partial view of a gateway’s connectivity. This is because surface access matters, and failure to meet demand on the ground can hamper growth.

Airports know and understand this, but worldwide they face an emerging 21st century challenge: how to balance their service, commercial, cultural and sustainability objectives.

The aviation industry tends to think of the passenger’s journey as being from airport X to airport Y. We spend most of our time monitoring the activity of airlines and modelling the movement of aircraft, passengers and cargo around our network of regional and global airports.

Arguably, we spend less time focussing on the passenger’s surface journey to and from the airport. In most cases, that infrastructure is outside the airport’s control – whereas the air journey is fully within it, so a focus on air connectivity is understandable, but it is not forgivable.

Whether going on holiday, visiting family and friends or a business trip, every passenger’s journey begins and ends at home. And, although journeys vary and might involve a taxi, hire car or public transport, they inevitably include a trip to the airport or train and/or bus station, potentially weighed down with luggage, and likely stress.

The surface journey at both ends features large in the passenger’s planning. Who has not been more stressed worrying about an on-time arrival at the airport to catch the flight, than an on-time departure once safely through security?

Airports are somewhat unusual businesses in that the customer is not entirely theirs.  At the airport, the passenger interacts with the airline, the airline’s agents, the airport’s retailers, or the state’s border authorities. Outside the airport, the passenger might interact with the state-provided transport network.

However, surface connections at the airport – most notably the final mile, set down, car parking or train or bus station interface – present one of the few passenger touchpoints that the airport can fully control.

It is therefore very important for the airport to get it right: to gift the passenger a good experience and memory of the airport. It is also a commercially important touchpoint, and in some regions the most important for the airport.

North America in particular is exposed to the commercial impact of a reduction in private car related income with around 40% of non-aeronautical income derived from the use of a private car, but its geography makes it more challenging to put in place public transport alternatives.

Conversely, for example, Hong Kong has a natural geographical advantage promoting the use of public transport.

However, in a time of increasing focus on climate change, airports worldwide are, through preference or legislation, having to manage a modal shift away from private to public transport as a means of accessing the airport. This can clearly create commercial tension.

From an environmental perspective, there is a clear order of preference for access from public transport as the most sustainable, long-term solution, through parking a private car, to drop off by taxi, which has the advantage of likely also taking a different passenger from the airport, to private drop-off, being the least sustainable as it necessitates two vehicle journeys for every one passenger journey.


In geographies that historically have prioritised the private vehicle, either through practical necessity or as a perception of personal aspiration, this trend requires that the passenger’s journey through the public transport network, likely carrying luggage on and off trains and buses, is simplified and eased.

How, therefore, have airports tackled this challenge? The world is perhaps too full of mixed success stories. Arguably, the most successful examples are in Asia-Pacific where certain states have either a natural geographical advantages that encourage the widespread uptake of public transport (Hong Kong, for example), and/or, they have avoided the US and European historical legacy of seeing the private car as an aspiration.

The most recent example of the addition of a new rail link to an airport is the Soekarno-Hatta Airport rail link in Jakarta, Indonesia, where road access to the airport has been notoriously difficult.

The new rail link, which opened in late 2017, offers a 55-minute journey to central Jakarta compared to an unpredictable two hours that a car journey may take.

And the government is now contemplating extending the high-speed rail network to serve the airport.

Less successful has been the city of Toronto’s efforts to encourage passengers onto the Union Pearson Express (UP Express), linking Union Station in downtown Toronto to Pearson International Airport.

Following lukewarm interest from the private sector, it was eventually built by the government and, despite high customer satisfaction, low patronage has allegedly led to significant tax payer subsidy.

On the other hand, the newly opened and high-performing rail link at Taoyuan International Airport (Taipei) is on track to wash away any negative connotations relating to the long roll-out of the project. After all, the express service reaches downtown Taipei in 35 minutes and offers check-in and baggage check services at stations along the route.

Maybe the UP Express will attract passengers in time and perhaps the delayed opening of the Taoyuan rail link will be forgiven, but the greatest success story must be the Hong Kong Airport Express. The challenges of excavating through mountains, navigating Victoria harbour and linking with the airport on reclaimed land were overcome by advanced planning by the government majority owned MTR Corporation.

On top of the seamless connectivity the rail link adds to the Hong Kong mass transit railway’s (MTR) network, the Airport Express offers a higher service standard than commuter lines, as well as check-in at Hong Kong and Kowloon stations.

Although it must be noted that despite the comfort, reliability and convenience of the Airport Express, as well as Hong Kong’s natural geographical advantage, the rail link still only captures just over 20% of the market to and from the airport, perhaps demonstrating the difficulty of satisfying the wide-ranging needs of individuals connecting to an airport.


Nevertheless, the success of Hong Kong has led the MTR Corporation to recently announce that it is contemplating backing rail links into Heathrow in the UK.

However, for all the successes of Hong Kong, Asia-Pacific can also experience difficulties realising projects successfully.

The Delhi Airport Metro Express was meant to be, and may yet be, a world-class system linking Indira Gandhi International Airport with the New Delhi Metro station connecting the airport into the rail network.

Originally constructed as a public-private partnership (PPP) project, it was beset with technical challenges, opened late, and was eventually nationalised, being operated today by the Delhi Metro Rail Corporation.

Global experience offers successful and unsuccessful examples of public transport links to airports. Cultural expectations play a part, as do the challenges or advantages of the particular geographies.

It is however likely, that as global initiatives in the 21st century increasingly prioritise impacts to climate change, all airports will become more involved with their surface access and the use of public transport.

In doing, so they can take greater control over a key customer touchpoint, but must balance that with the commercial needs of an evolving range of non-aeronautical incomes.

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