Three Key Challenges all Cruise Feeder Flights have to master

by Jan Uphues
Photo credit: ArchMan -

Have you ever been on a cruise, arriving with a dedicated feeder flight, or do you plan to do so? Cruising is certainly becoming more affordable and the industry is booming. The figures show, since 2009, the global number of passengers in the cruise industry has increased from 17.8 million to an estimated 27.2 million in 2018. Why’s that? And why on earth do I reference this in an aviation blog?

Bigger ships, more passengers

It just takes a few words to get there. Here’s why: According to the increasing worldwide demand, more and larger ships are being built and thrown into the market. This follows a simple economic rule in the cruise line business: The bigger the ship and the more passengers it carries, the more economical it can be operated, resulting in lower costs per passenger. Subsequently, prices are dropping to make cruises affordable to an even larger group of potential customers. The calculation pays off as the ships still are mostly booked out while getting bigger and bigger. Take the example of the German ship AIDAnova, which was launched in late summer 2018: it is able to carry up to 6,600 passengers plus a staff of 1,500, amounting to more than 8,000 people on one ship. In comparison, the Titanic carried just over 2,400 passengers – a mid-sized cruise liner by today’s standards. Now imagine this huge new ship finishes a standard 7-day trip over the Canary Islands with Gran Canaria being the port of destination. Within a few hours, more than 6,000 passengers will have to disembark and travel home while another 6,000 new guests arrive for the subsequent trip.

This is where aviation comes in, being met by a significant challenge. The new-embarking passengers arrive with feeder flights from different places of departure. Even if we assume that these flights are packed solely with cruise passengers, in terms of figures, it would take a whopping 37 fully booked Airbus A320s or Boeing 737-800s to fill the capacity of the booked-out ship. Of course, at a large airport close to a common central cruise port like Miami, Las Palmas or Hamburg, it’s no problem to have 37, and many more aircraft landing over the course of two or three hours. It is also not a problem for the respective cruise line company to embark such a large number of guests at the cruise terminal effectively, as they have established fluent processes in recent years to meet these requirements.   

Feeder Flights: Punctuality is key

Still, there are three issues that keep the airlines awake at night. First, if the passengers arrive by plane, their feeder flights must not be late. Sure, we don’t talk about ten minutes or maybe half an hour. But what happens if you’ve got an aircraft on ground (AOG)? An unforeseen aircraft change or crew change? Harsh weather – or just about anything that leads to a flight cancellation or massive delay? Any cruise ship would wait at the port of departure for a few hours, maximum. But it cannot wait forever, as port fees are extremely expensive, and above all, it has to follow its own schedule to be back at the port of departure a week later to start the next trip. Therefore, it is essential for the collaborating airlines to keep their on-time performance (OTP) and prioritize cruise feeder flights. Not an easy challenge these days – 2018 is a rather unfortunate year, regarding delays and cancellations. Just from the beginning of September to the beginning of October 2018, more than 20,000 cancellations and more than 320,000 delays occurred in Europe and North America combined.  

All baggage aboard?

Secondly, the baggage needs to be a key focus as well. Unlike on a “normal” vacation in a hotel or resort, lost or forgotten baggage cannot simply be brought to the port of destination subsequently for obvious reasons. The ship will have departed and the organizers would have to bring the baggage to the next port of call – at immense effort and cost, having to deal with deeply dissatisfied cruise guests on top of that. The airlines will do anything to avoid that.

The susceptibility to errors in this entire process is especially apparent when the value chain and processes are as perfectly woven as at Disney Cruise Line for example, who offer an all-round carefree package for their cruise customers on the North American market. Having spent a week in a Disney-owned resort with free entry to the nearby Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, the cruise guests are taken to Port Canaveral with a Disney’s Magical Express shuttle. Here, they embark a Disney Cruise Line ship to travel to the Disney-owned island Castaway Cay. Within a tight schedule like this, each cog wheel must mesh with each other. Perfect logistical processes are required. Cooperating partners – in this case airlines – have to be extremely reliable so as not to disrupt the value chain. As the cruise line company needs to pay compensation for carrier-caused delays, they try to minimize these costs by making the feeding processes as reliable as possible – applying to passengers and baggage.

This leads to the third challenge: arriving by feeder flight, thousands of passengers and their baggage need to be taken to the cruise terminal, while at the same time, the same number of disembarking passengers need to be taken from the port to their flight back. Remember the AIDAnova figures? Up to 13,000 passengers would need a lift in both directions at the same time, week by week. This scenario obviously requires dozens and hundreds of busses, drivers and loading agents at peak times. Additionally, some cruise passengers with reduced mobility (PRM) may need assistance. And last but not least: a lot of parking space for the shuttle bus column is required as well. It clearly shows: along with the ever-growing international air traffic, it’s especially the equally growing cruise business that adds special requirements for airlines and airports.

Have you ever had a cruise experience with a feeder flight? Was everything on time? Did your baggage arrive safely? Share your vacation experience with us!

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About the author

  • Jan Uphues

    Jan Uphues started working as Marketing Manager in INFORM’s Aviation Division in 2018. He particularly enjoys the “Max Thrust!” moment on the runway.

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