Lyon believes low cost model could help bring new long haul connectivity into France’s regions

The French long haul market has been dominated for many years by flights in and out of the capital city. Whether this has been business markets out of Charles De Gaulle or the perhaps the more leisure focussed flights out to overseas territories across the Caribbean out of Orly, there has been a strong long haul bias for Paris. Now, with all eyes on the emerging low cost long haul market, Lyon’s Saint Exupéry Airport, the fourth largest airport in the country and a key gateway for the entire Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region, believes it is perfectly placed to build sustainable long haul activities from the regions.

It is well-documented that France and the United Kingdom are the two most capital-centric countries in Europe. But while the UK has powerful regional airports at Manchester, and increasingly Edinburgh and Birmingham, that is not the case in France. There, the two Paris airports dominate, handling over 100 million passengers between them last year, while the third and fourth busiest airports, Nice and Lyon, handled just 13.3 and 10.3 million passengers respectively in 2017.

Looking at Lyon, jointly France’s second most important city economically, with Marseille, is a location that lies fairly centrally in the country in the Rhone-Alpes region, over to the east, and the airport, St Exupéry, has a catchment area running to 12 million people within a 90-minute drive. Its direct influence stretches as far as cities such as St Etienne (50km southwest), Clermont Ferrand (135km west) and Grenoble (80km southeast).

CHART – Lyon is located in the country’s east-central part at the confluence of the rivers Rhône and Saône. Economically, Lyon is a major centre for banking, as well as for the chemical, pharmaceutical, and biotech industriesSource: Google Maps

In a whitepaper published last year, entitled ‘#LYS – the next long haul low cost base in Europe?’ the airport, highlights that only Nice and Paris have non-stop long haul flights to the United States of America, South America or Asia, highlighting a clear gap in the market, even the more obvious when you compare networks from the regions out of Germany, Republic of Ireland, Spain and the United Kingdom.

“France is an underserved market for long haul and Lyon is the largest unserved French city,” it explains, noting that alongside a strong outbound market with three UNESCO sites, the Alps just a foot step away and local vineyards, the region is also a prime destination for inbound tourism (inbound traffic to Lyon Saint Exupéry rose to 2.8 million passengers 2016, up +21% on the previous year).

A look at travel behaviour shows Lyon as the largest unserved origin and destination market on most long haul route out of France, a position that would be strengthened when considering leakage to both Geneva and Paris. In fact, Bangkok, Fort de France and New York are all markets that currently support average indirect daily demand for more than 100 passengers per day each way, a strong platform that would also be stimulated by a non-stop link.

“The Auvergne-Rhône-Alpes region, has a country sized economy. With 7.9 million inhabitants and a GDP of more than EUR240 billion, the region is larger than Finland… richer than Portugal… and more populated than Ireland where for instance three cities are directly linked to New York,” says the report.

The airport sees a great opportunity from low cost entrants to secure long haul connectivity, but why has it struggled to date to attract such traffic? One reason is clearly the impact of location and how it better supports a strong and efficiently run rail network within France. The high speed train links Lyon to Paris and its airports in less than two hours, while Geneva is just 110 kilometres (70 miles) to the northeast.

Despite an extensive infrastructure construction programme that has been running almost continuously for five years, and which culminated in the opening of a new 70,000 square metre Terminal 1 in Oct-2017, the airport has seemingly lacked a little in ambition and even confidence over its ability to attract more passengers. Now, with the opening of the new terminal, it has more ambitious targets with aims to reach 13 million passengers per annum by 2025 and 15 million per annum by 2028.

Lyon has identified the low cost model as an opportunity to help turn a negative into a positive and use its location and rail connectivity to bring price sensitive passengers to St Exupéry attracted by low fare transatlantic flights. It has already been successful securing new flights from Aigle Azur to Dakar, Senegal and Air Canada to Montreal and Aeroflot to Moscow (adding to XL Airways flights to the to the French overseas territories of Guadeloupe, Martinique and Réunion), but faces tough competition to fulfil a goal to be ‘the next long haul low cost base in Europe’.