All roads lead to Rome, it is commonly said. But what about flights? As it happens, two great historical empires, the Roman and Chinese, never managed much direct contact as diplomatic forays in both directions fell short due to the vast amount of time it took to arrive. So Gan-Ying headed west in the first century, but stopped in the Persian Gulf when sailors told him it would take two years to get to the Eternal City. A century later a Roman made it all the way to China, but it took so long that the emperor who had sent him had passed away.
Today, of course, we have airplanes, and China is no longer a sleeping giant. Some 500,000 travelers arrived on Chinese airlines to Fiumicino in 2015, marking 12% growth from the year before, and a further 30% growth is forecast this year.
In July of this year, Rome will have an offer of 30 weekly flights to one of nine destinations in greater China. These include Air China flights between Rome and Beijing and Shanghai pluis others to Wenzhou, Wuhan-Guanghzhou, Chongquing, Xi’an and also Hong Kong and Taipei.
Italy as a whole will have 39 flight connections to China. That compares to 101 for Germany, 87 for France, 61 for the U.K. and 47 for the Netherlands.
However, Fiumicino is far and away the leader in the number of airlines serving such routes. Air China, China Eastern, China Southern, Hainan, Cathay Pacific and China Airlines all ply the sky to Rome.
Over time, this could be significant, because Fiumicino is not tied to a dominant former national flagship carrier and thus has greater aperture to Chinese and other airlines than most European airports. Currently, the greatest leakage of passengers between Italy and China goes to Frankfurt and Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris, and reflects the network strengths of Lufthansa and Air France.
However, the annual growth in international air traffic with China is much higher for second-tier cities. The new Hainan Airlines link between Rome and Xi’an suggest how Fiumicino can benefit from and encourage this potential growth channel.
Currently there are around $385 billion in airport construction projects underway or on the drawing boards. Almost a third are in Asia, and China alone plans to add 69 more regional airports to its network of 193.
This creates the potential leverage for Rome to position itself as a privileged gateway for business and tourist travel. The airport’s goal is to be seen as a gateway to the entire Mediterranean rather than to Italy in particular.
A report from Airbus, suggests that there will be 91 “aviation megacities” in 2033, up from 42 today. Many will be in China, but Indonesia, Vietnam and Mexico have huge expansion plans, as do a host of other countries.
As it is, China has one airport for every 7.5 million people, while the ratio in North America is one airport for every 400,000 people. If Europe were to match the North American level, it would require 150% more airports over the next two decades. Or it could opt for large-scale expansion of strategic hubs, which is what’s driving the Fiumicino plan.
To be sure, there will be challenges. Local opposition to expansion of Frankfurt airport modified the plans and paved the way for Charles de Gaulle to aim to become Europe’s biggest hub, surpassing Heathrow, with perhaps 160 million visitors annually. Why Paris?The major reason, according to its operating authority, is that it will be able to expand its physical infrastructure more easily than Heathrow, Frankfurt or Schiphol.
In that light, Fiumicino is well placed and it would be a pity if local politics stymied the process. After all, there are other contenders, not least Istanbul’s vast ambitions.
The Orient is a key driving force for Fiumicino’s future needs. In Antiquity, wealthy Romans marvelled at the silk they obtained while occupying regions of the Midde East, whose peoples told them they in turn obtained silk from yet further east. This of course is early evidence of the Silk Road, but just as important is the fact that Rome, the self-styled Eternal City, recognized that there must be a highly advanced and powerful civilization beyond its imperial purview.
Today the rise of China – and with it all of Asia – is a staple of everyday knowledge. And yet Italy is only beginning to tap the possibilities of a nexus that gave rise to pasta and noodles or to tortellini and dumplings.
Fiumicino existing modernization, including a new terminal and enhanced existing runways, will increase the airport’s capacity by around half to above 50 million by 2020. It will also mean that almost all flights are boarded by fingers rather than via bus on the tarmac.
Those two interventions – coming after decades of inadequate investment, themselves following almost comic mishaps when the state first set out to build the airport in the 1950s - answer the critical weaknesses of the airport so far, which have been the customer’s experience and, even more importantly, the frequency of delays. It’s little known that at peak hours Fiumicino already has capacity utilization rates rivalling those of London’s Heathrow Airport.
The rationale for an extra runway and EUR12 billion investment in expansion is to avoid allowing that to become chronic and instead offering Rome as a wide doorway to Europe.