Gateway to the Alps

Toulouse’s new Terminal D opened for business in March. (Toulouse-Blagnac)

Thomas Withington takes a look  at Toulouse’s new Terminal D.

Toulouse’s new Terminal D opened for business in March. (Toulouse-Blagnac)

As the gateway to the picturesque Midi-Pyrénées region and as the home of commercial aviation in France, via its accommodation of the vast Airbus factory, Toulouse’s airport near the northern suburb of Blagnac is arguably the most important in the south-west region.  Situated four miles (6.7 kilometres) from the city centre, this airport handles around 6 million passengers annually, half of which are business travellers heading to and from Toulouse’s aerospace manufacturing cluster.  In addition, Blagnac also handles leisure travellers and students visiting the city’s prestigious universities.
Until recently, the airport had a single terminal divided into three halls designated A, B and C.  These accommodate 32 airlines serving 29 international, and 17 domestic, routes.  Blagnac hosts two runways; the 9,842 ft (3,000m) long 14 Left/32 Right, and the 11,482 ft (3,500m) long 14 Right/32 Left.  The length of these runways is especially important for the large, intercontinental aircraft that Airbus constructs at its Toulouse site, namely the A330, A340 and A380 airliners.  Airbus is not the only manufacturer based at Blagnac as ATR also builds its propeller-driven regional airliners at the site.
With its current terminal facilities, the airport has been running at full capacity for some years and it became clear to Blagnac’s management at the turn of the century that the airport would need to expand if it was to retain its position as one of the nation’s most important.  To this end, an expansion plan was forged which would see the development of a new terminal building known as Hall D.
Development work on Hall D began in February 2006, with ground being broken for its construction in May of that year.  Just under four years later, Hall D is now in service, opening its doors to the travelling public this March.  Passengers now benefit from an additional 430,556 sq ft (40.000m2) of floor space, with an additional 24 check-in desks in the departure hall, eight security inspection posts, the same number of direct aircraft boarding gates, and an addition seven departure points for aircraft transfer by bus.
Hall D’s construction cost US$138.6 million and has been paid for by the airport’s: "own finance," according to Jean-Michel Vernhes, the Chairman of the Airport’s Board of Directors. (Toulouse-Blagnac)

Hall D’s construction has cost €103.6 million (US$138.6m) and has been paid for by the airport’s “own finance,” according to Jean-Michel Vernhes, the Chairman of the Airport’s Board of Directors, along with a bank loan with each party providing 50% of the cash.  Hall D’s construction was the result of a compromise.  Earlier this century, the Préfet (the administrative head of the Haute-Garonne department where Toulouse is located) commissioned a study regarding the construction of a new large airport around 31 miles (50 km) from Toulouse to serve south west France.  However, the plans generated serious opposition from local residents around the Midi-Pyrenees region concerned about the effect that the new airport could have on their area.  The plans for the new airport were abandoned, and instead Préfet and the airport decided to build a new terminal to allow Blagnac to expand.
Hall D will allow the airport to grow over the: “next twenty to thirty years” according to Mr. Vernhes.  “The idea behind Hall D was to build a terminal that will take the airport’s capacity to around 8.5 million passengers per year.”  This expansion is expected to be driven not only by business travellers, but also the low fares carriers operating from the airport.  EasyJet already operates routes from Blagnac, including a regular Toulouse-Paris service, as does Air France.  This allows business travellers to visit either city for meetings in a single day and provides an easy route to and from the Toulouse for people owning weekend houses in the picturesque south-western region.  This area has proved particularly popular with British ex-patriots who have taken advantage of the airport’s good links with the UK (both easyJet and British Airways offer direct flights to Britain) and the region’s competitive house prices offer affordable holiday homes.
Both the low-cost and business traveller markets are; “one of the engines of growth for the airport” says Mr Vernhes.  Because of this, Hall D has been designed to serve both sets of passengers.  The floor space of Hall D almost doubles Blagnac’s existing capacity: “Hall D will be a big change in the airport due to the fact that we will have an additional 40,000m2.  In the past we had 60,000m2.  Hall D is considerably larger and wider than the existing halls.”  The floor space for the new terminal will be roughly equivalent to eight rugby pitches in size.  It will take the airport’s total surface area to over one million square feet (100,000m2).
Passengers arriving at Hall D by car will reach the terminal from a long overpass.  Those leaving the arrivals hall will do so beneath this structure.  Travellers arriving from the airport’s new multi-story car park will reach Hall D via a subterranean tunnel.  Furthermore, movement between the existing halls and Hall D is possible via a glass tunnel.  Despite being around four and a half miles (7km) from the city centre, Blagnac Airport is served by the motorway and a shuttle bus service that takes around 20 minutes.  In the future, the airport is set to receive a tram link from the city in 2013.  Additional bus services are also planned to enable passengers not only to reach Toulouse city centre, but also the city’s underground metro which can take them to other parts of the conurbation.  The existing shuttle bus service also takes passengers to the city’s main railway station for train services to other parts of the region and nearby cities such as Bordeaux, Montpelier and Barcelona.  By 2020, the city is also expected to receive a new high-speed TGV (Train à Grande Vitesse) line, which will allow passengers to reach these, and other, destinations even quicker.
For the design of Hall D, the airport nominated Cardete and Huet, the same architects who designed the airport’s Hall C building, which was opened in 1993.  Cardete and Huet have devised a building that places a high premium of the use of natural light.  Large glass facades ensure that the departure hall is bright and inviting.  One of Toulouse’s great assets is the strength of the sunshine in ‘La Ville Rose’, as the city is known because of its characteristic pink brick. It’s a phenomenon that has attracted artists to the city and surrounding area for centuries.  This use of natural light also helps to reduce the electrical lighting required by the new terminal and the level of heating.  In addition glass; granite, marble and wood have all been utilised in the construction, and this utilisation of natural materials has helped to reduce Hall D’s environmental impact.  The design of the terminal also uses green spaces with trees and plants decorating the areas around the escalators and public spaces.  This use of natural decoration, along with the natural light, readily enhances the terminals’ interior.  Away from Hall D, in 2009, the airport commissioned a rainwater treatment plant to gather and treat the rainwater that washes from the airport’s runways, taxiways and roads, clean this water and then release it back into the environment.
For the design of Hall D, the airport nominated Cardete and Huet, the same architects who designed the airport’s Hall C building which was opened in 1993. (Thomas Withington)

As well as enjoying natural surroundings, passengers using Hall D will benefit from a state-of-the-art baggage handling system that has been installed in the new terminal which promises to provide an efficient means of not only security-screening hold baggage, but also ensuring that baggage arrives speedily both at the aircraft and the carousel.  In the past, Blagnac airport has sustained some criticism for its baggage handling system, although the new system in Hall D should ensure that delays in passengers receiving their bags should be kept to a minimal.  Previously, it took the airport’s baggage system around two-and-a-half minutes to get a bag from the check-in desk to be ready to load onto an aircraft.  The new system promises a reduction of this time, as well as increasing the number of bags that can be handled per hour which presently includes around 300 items, although the new system will increase this to 2,400 items per hour.  At present, Hall D has a single baggage carousel, although there is ample space to add an extra machine should this be required during the life of the new terminal.  For departing passengers, Hall D will offer eight security checkpoints.  Security checkpoints are always a potential bottleneck for any airport and Blagnac is no different.  Peak periods, particularly on early Monday mornings when Parisians are returning to the city after a weekend in the country can inundate the existing security checkpoints in the current terminal however these eight new posts should help to reduce the burden.
Once checked in and through security, passengers will emerge into Hall D’s large new commercial area. Dubbed ‘La Place’ (The Square), the new terminals’ shops, bars and restaurants are arranged around a large central area reminiscent of a classic south-western French town square.  The commercial area will offer a range of establishments for departing passengers.  As well as including traditional ‘duty free’ style shops selling alcohol, tobacco, perfume and cosmetics, passengers will be able to browse local delicacies like fois gras pate and Cassoulet stew, in addition to a gift shop selling Rugby memorabilia from the local Stade Toulousain rugby club.  Along with fine cuisine, the sport is a passion of the Midi-Pyrenees region.
With Hall D will come new routes, and the airport is expected to offer flights to Prague, Naples and Barcelona, to name but a few.  Mr Vernhes also sees Hall D as a means by which the airport can improve its links to the big European hubs in Frankfurt, London, Madrid, and Paris.  Away from Western Europe, the airport’s management team wants to develop new routes to the Mediterranean Sea and intercontinental destinations.  At present, Blagnac offers services to Montreal, Canada during the summer months, and a year-round service to Reunion Island in the Indian Ocean. Jean-Michel Vernhes has the United States of America on his radar: “particularly New York – and we also want to develop some flights to the French Antilles.  Today, the policy of Air France is to route these flights through Paris.”  Mr Vernhes and his colleagues also have their sights set on developing flights to the Middle East and Africa.  Although he adds that these routes are not an immediate objective for the airport and instead could come to fruition over the next five years.  In the short term: “our objective in the next two or three years is extending the direct links through Europe, in particular Eastern Europe, and Italy.  We also plan to develop routes to the Mediterranean and North Africa.”
Currently, the airport handles its circa 6 million passengers per year via around 100,000 aircraft movements.  Despite its commanding position on the airfield, Airbus’s demand on Blagnac’s infrastructure is relatively minimal, and the company performs around 5,000 flight movements per year.  These include certification flights for new aircraft designs, such as the A400M military airlifter, which will begin flight testing from Blagnac this spring.  In addition, delivery flights to new customers are included in this total, but apart from these, the deliveries of airliner components on board the company’s distinctive A300-600ST Beluga freighters, Airbus’s flying activities at Blagnac are relatively small.  This was not always the case: “20 to 30 years ago, the number of flights from Airbus was bigger than the number of commercial flights,” says Mr Vernhes, although this ratio has now been comprehensively reversed.
The idea behind Hall D was to build a terminal that will take the airport’s capacity to around 8.5 million passengers per year. (Thomas Withington)

Moreover, in addition to passenger flights, Blagnac has a sizeable cargo operation, boasting the largest such facility outside Paris.  The French mail airline Europe Airpost makes significant use of Blagnac along with Volga-Dnepr Airlines which uses massive Antonov AN-124-100 freighters here.  With its parallel runway configuration, Blagnac airport allows up to 50 aircraft movements per hour, and this is sufficient to allow the airport to potentially double its number of yearly flight movements.  This will be essential given the addition number of passengers that the airport will be able to handle thanks to the construction of Hall D.
While Hall D is allowing the airport space to grow, there are potential challenges in the road ahead for the site’s enlargement: “Our major issue is the environmental challenge,” notes Mr. Vernhes.  Readers who have used Blagnac airport will no doubt be aware of the spectacular views of the city centre and the River Garonne that the approach and departure routes from the airport offer.  However, these routes cause airliners to overfly built-up residential areas in the city centre: “We have a lot of people protesting that the airport is noisy,” says Jean-Michel Vernhes, “and we have to take this into account.”
In addition to the possible environmental concerns regarding the airport’s expansion, Mr Vernhes and his colleagues will also have to weather the continued sluggish European economy.  Like the United Kingdom and Germany, France is cautiously inching out of recession.  In many ways, the opening of the new terminal comes at an economically precarious time.  Global air traffic suffered in the wake of the September 11 attacks in the United States and has then suffered an additional blow with the recession.
For now airport’s management is concentrating at maintaining the its usage at existing levels: “It’s true that when we decided to build this terminal in 2006, we didn’t know at the time what will be the economic situation in four or five years’ time.  It’s true that opening the new terminal does not arrive at the best moment.  It would be nice to open the terminal with the economy running well, growing at 2-3% percent per year.  Unfortunately, this is not the case, the traffic slowed down by 1.1% last year.  This is not catastrophic, but it is considerably less than it was for the average for European airports, which was 6-7%.  Our forecast is for the same level of traffic in 2010 as for 2009, and after that the forecast is for an increase of around three to five percent per year.” Mr Vernhes realises that the TGV will offer some competition for the airport: “We think that we will lose around one million passengers per year.”  That said, the new routes planned for the Mediterranean and further afield could help Blagnac to offset this loss.
What are the airport’s plans after Hall D?  Despite the size of Airbus’s presence at the site, Blagnac does have room to expand.  The freight terminal could be relocated, and an additional terminal built on that site. Moreover, with Francazal airbase, an Armée de l’Air (French Air Force) installation on the outskirts of Toulouse, closing a new business and general aviation airport has been proposed for this site which could take some of this traffic away from Blagnac allowing a further expansion of the airport onto the area used by the private jets.  However such plans are beyond 2020 and until then, Hall D will represent the future of Toulouse-Blagnac Airport.