When Lloyd McCoomb was invited to up sticks and leave his Ottawa home for a nine-month assignment at Toronto Pearson, he could never have imagined that he would still be there 20 years later
The fact that he stayed can be put down to a chance invite back to Toronto and the persuasive powers of Lou Turpen, the former boss of Toronto Pearson, who made McCoomb an offer he couldn’t refuse.
McCoomb recalls that his original challenge upon arriving in Toronto was to finish an environmental review that was expected to help solve the gateway’s “capacity crisis”.
He had given up his position as chief engineer with Ottawa airports to take on the nine-month assignment – which in reality took a year-and-a-half to complete – because it was believed that it would pave the way for future expansion at Canada’s busiest gateway.
When it was done, he did briefly return to Ottawa in 1993, but was back in Toronto within weeks after being asked to come back as a senior executive to help streamline the airport authority ahead of its privatisation.
Indeed, he held the post of airport general manager at Lester B Pearson International Airport from March 1994 until the creation of the Greater Toronto Airports Authority (GTAA) in December 1996.
His brief, he says, was to change a “deeply bureaucratic, staff-heavy, federally-run organisation into one fit to compete in the private sector” before walking away and taking up the position as the government’s regional director for Ontario after the handover to the GTAA.
However, a phone call from newly appointed president and CEO of GTAA, Lou Turpen, weeks ahead of the handover, persuaded him to put the regional director’s job on hold and stay at Toronto Pearson for good.
McCoomb says: “Lou offered me the job of vice president of planning and development, which effectively meant spearheading the redevelopment of Toronto Pearson. To a civil engineer with a PhD in engineering, I felt like I had died and gone to heaven as this was a once in a lifetime opportunity. It took me all of ten seconds to accept.”
And, having already clocked up a few years under his belt at Toronto Pearson, McCoomb was under no illusion about the size of the task ahead of him.
“We didn’t own Terminal 3, Terminal 2 was under a 40-year lease to Air Canada and Terminal 1 was falling apart,” admits McCoomb. “In fact, five floors of it had been condemned, so new boss, Lou Turpen, was given a really bad hand.
“However, his laser sharp ability to focus on what was really important allowed us to turn around a seemingly impossible position into a favourable one. The first opportunity Lou got, he bought back Terminal 3. When Air Canada got itself into some difficulty, he shrewdly used the situation to cancel their T2 lease agreement, and the first chance he got he tore down Terminal 1.
“Suddenly we were in control of our destiny and I had the opportunity to put our infrastructure development plans into action.”
Turpen’s solution to Pearson’s potential future capacity problems was to build a new airport over the existing one in a hugely ambitious C$4.4 billion development programme.
His vision, effectively carried out by McCoomb over the next decade, was based on the demolition of the old terminals 1 and 2 and the construction of a new C$1 billion Terminal 1, two new runways, approach roads and bridges and a 900,000 tonnes per annum capacity infield cargo complex.
In addition, eight gates were added to Pier C as part of the multi-million dollar refurbishment and expansion of Terminal 3.
McCoomb refers to present day Terminal 1, opened in 2004, as the gateway’s new “mega-terminal” because of its size and facilities.
The 346,000sqm complex currently comprises a main terminal with three finger piers (D, E and F), which between them are equipped with 49 gates and 24 positions for commuter aircraft.
Its 300ft long Pier F, opened in February 2007, has two gates specifically designed to accommodate the A380.
McCoomb enthuses: “Lou told the board that they had two options – the piecemeal upgrade of the existing facilities or to basically knock the older buildings down and reinvent the place. Luckily, they agreed on the latter, and the end result is a first class airport that can handle around 40 million passengers per annum today but is ultimately capable of accommodating up to 55 million passengers.
“It would have been a very different story if they’d opted to upgrade the old facilities because the most we could have squeezed out of the airport then would have been 35 million passengers annually.
“The decision has effectively delayed the need for a second [reliever] airport for Toronto for at least 20 years.”
Achieving a total capacity of 55mppa hinges on the addition of three new piers at Terminal 1, the timing and construction of which will be based on traffic growth.
Pier G is next on the agenda, with McCoomb noting that its construction will be triggered when Pearson reaches a gate capacity of 350,000 passengers per gate per annum.
“I’d say the board has three to five years before they need to think about adding new infrastructure,” comments McCoomb.
“What I can say for certain though is that we now have an airport that can be developed in a structured and orderly way, which wasn’t the case before. We are finally in charge of our own destiny infrastructure wise and I am proud to have played a part in that.”
McCoomb is certainly glowing in his praise of Turpen, who he says the city of Toronto owes “a debt of gratitude for setting the stage for building a top notch airport”.
But make no mistake, McCoomb is very much his own man, and has set about demonstrating it since being appointed president and CEO of GTAA five years ago.
Under McCoomb’s watch, for example, the GTAA has changed its business strategy to become a much more commercially- driven, customer-focused and cost-conscious organisation.
Indeed, one of the first things he did upon becoming president and CEO was to develop and expand GTAA’s Marketing and Commercial Department, most recently under the leadership of chief marketing and commercial officer, Pamela Griffith-Jones.
The new approach has been reflected in a number of key business initiatives that included the introduction of a number of new retail and F&B outlets across the airport.
It has also led to the introduction of a new, more dynamic brand for the gateway, based on dropping the reference to GTAA in a new logo which simply states, ‘Toronto Pearson. For You. The World’.
McCoomb explains: “We wanted to create something that reflected the new Pearson as the name GTAA sounds more like the old and bureaucratic airport we used to be and not the highly ambitious, more youthful and forward thinking one we are today.
“I believe that the new brand is more appealing and hope that one day it will be as successful a brand as the ones they have at Incheon, Singapore Changi and Schiphol, for example. From a commercial perspective, the best is yet to come from us.”
McCoomb is also quick to point out that under his leadership, Pearson has reduced its airline charges by 19% over the last five years, so refutes any suggestion that the infrastructure upgrade has come at a heavy financial cost to the airlines.
When McCoomb became CEO five years ago, the airport was handling around 30mppa, and although throughput dipped due to the economic recession, it is on the rise again, reaching 31.9 million passengers and 418,292 aircraft movements last year.
Indeed, McCoomb predicts that a 5% rise in traffic this year will lead to around 33.5 million passengers passing through the gateway in 2011.
In terms of traffic growth, he is particularly pleased about a healthy 27% rise in the number of connecting flights at Pearson.
McCoomb admits that the upturn, spearheaded by an increase in Westjet and Air Canada services, is “especially gratifying” as it is in line with the airport’s desire to become more of an international hub.
He says that the GTAA has worked closely with its two home-based carriers to help them build up their number of connecting services, as Toronto Pearson wants to grow as a hub and ultimately become North America’s leading international gateway.
It seems like a lofty ambition, especially when you consider that Pearson is currently fourth behind New York, Miami and Los Angeles in terms of being the gateway for international visitors entering North America.
So is the goal realistic? “Look, it’s a vision, so it’s got to be a bit of a stretch and somewhat inspirational,” admits McCoomb.
“The competition is tough, but if we continue to develop as a hub and build up our international route network we are going in the right direction. Can we do it? Why not, it’s up to us, isn’t it?”
McCoomb says that the airport’s new, improved facilities means that it is now in a position to be able to offer a number of incentive packages to the airlines in order to persuade them to introduce new services or increase frequencies on existing routes.
He adds that the airport has identified a handful of routes that it wishes to add in the future and would “happily roll out the welcome mat” for airlines offering direct, non-stop services to Cairo, Johannesburg and Manila.
Anyone who knows McCoomb or has spent any time with him discussing Toronto Pearson, can testify that his enthusiasm for the gateway is infectious, possibly even burning as brightly now as when he first arrived on the scene nearly 20 years ago.
So with seemingly so much still to achieve in terms of Pearson’s business and commercial development, why is he stepping down in January 2012?
“When I was appointed CEO, I told the board that I had a check-list of things I wanted to achieve and I feel that having worked my way through them, the time is right to step down. You also have to bear in my mind that I am 66 years old now, and I’d like to do a few more things on my check-list of life before I finally retire.”
He lists some of these things as teaching, consulting, volunteer work and travelling, so it doesn’t sound as if the likeable McCoomb will be ready for his pipe and slippers anytime soon.
GTAA names new CEO
Howard Eng will succeed Lloyd McCoomb as president and CEO of the Greater Toronto Airports Authority in the first quarter of 2012.
Eng, originally from Canada, has served as Hong Kong International Airport's executive director of airport operations since 1995. Prior to moving to Hong Kong, he worked as vice president of operations at Edmonton International Airport, both with Transport Canada and the Edmonton Airport Authority.
Eng said: "As a proud Canadian, I am very excited to be coming home. To be given the chance to implement the hub strategy and to lead Canada's flagship airport is an exceptional career opportunity."