When Miguel Southwell was appointed aviation director at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in May 2014, some could have been forgiven for thinking that he could now put his feet up as he had made it to the very top.
After all, Hartsfield-Jackson is the busiest airport in the world, handling in excess of 96 million passengers, and has a well-established management team in place that is used to getting the best out of the 63,000 employees at the gateway.
Georgia’s gateway to the world is also still reaping the benefits of the May 2012 opening of its Maynard H Jackson Jnr International Terminal, which continues to win rave reviews from passengers.
However, with the last phase of development over, Southwell and his team are tasked with the responsibility of coming up with new business ideas and formulating a new master plan that will shape the airport’s development for the next 15 to 20 years.
He is also more than aware that he has big shoes to fill after becoming only the third aviation general manager at Hartsfield-Jackson in 15 years, succeeding former airport veteran Louis Miller and the long-serving Benjamin DeCosta, who previously spent 12 years in the hot seat.
So has he found his new role a little daunting? “No, I wouldn’t say that,” laughs Southwell. “I’d use the words exciting, challenging and an incredible opportunity.
“You do feel an enormous amount of responsibility combined with a great sense of humility, actually.
“Every airport is different, of course, and fortunately for the city of Atlanta the airport has had some really great leaders, so the challenge for someone coming in, such as myself, is how do you build upon what they already have.
“We have an amazing management team and an amazing facility. How do you further improve that? I see this as my obligation and a fantastic opportunity, although I know it won’t be as there is already such a high level of performance.”
It helps that he is also no stranger to ATL, having previously spent 11 years at the gateway in various leadership positions — including serving as the interim assistant general manager for business and finance — before joining Miami International Airport in 2001 as its deputy general manager of business.
Southwell believes that an airport is constantly evolving and cites Hartsfield-Jackson’s security operation and the gateway’s aesthetics — he feels some areas could benefit from being brighter and lighter — as areas where he thinks improvements can be made from a customer service perspective.
Existing and future infrastructure
He also notes that before an airport spends billions of dollars on building new infrastructure it first should concentrate on “taking care of the facilities it already has”, which in Atlanta’s case is a handful of mostly 35-year-old terminals.
In line with this philosophy, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL) is embarking on a terminal modernisation programme to make its facilities more appealing to today’s new breed of more savvy passengers.
“Now is our opportunity to enhance our existing terminals to provide passengers with the type of facilities that they want and expect from us,” says Southwell, noting that the airport has learned much more about the travel psyche of passengers since its terminals were designed some 40 years ago.
Explaining a little more about this greater understanding of its passengers, he admits that today ATL accepts the fact that most people find travelling a stressful experience, and that anxiety levels can be eased or worsened by the airport experience.
“Simple things like letting more light in to the terminal, for example, can have a strong positive impact on passengers, regardless of how much of a road warrior they are,” remarks Southwell.
“So, as we look to modernise the terminals, we shall look to remove some of the solid walls and replace them with glass. We shall also introduce brighter lighting and new seating with a power supply that allows people to recharge the computers and cellphones that nobody had 35 years ago.
“There is actually quite a lot we can do and that makes this a really exciting time to be at Hartsfield-Jackson.”
Today, ATL boasts 6.8 million square feet of terminal space spread across a Domestic Terminal, Maynard H Jackson Jnr International Terminal and concourses T, A, B, C, D, E and F, which between them boast 207 gates, including 40 dedicated for international operations.
The new 1.2 million square feet Maynard H Jackson terminal and 12-gate Concourse F is arguably the jewel in its crown and is the most environmentally friendly facility based on its cutting-edge LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification.
In terms of future expansion, Southwell lists the next priority projects as being new car parking facilities and the addition of a $75 million outer taxiway that will boost airfield efficiency by ensuring that aircraft no longer have to taxi across active runways to get to the terminal buildings.
A total of $600 million has been set aside for new car parking facilities, which will be built on the site of its existing north and south car parking complexes, and the modernisation of car parking facilities A and B.
Next on the agenda is a 10-gate Concourse G and new cargo facilities, which Southwell wants to boost freight activity at ATL — an area he feels is still underdeveloped despite more than 600,000 tonnes of cargo being handled at the airport last year.
“Our number one priority from a commercial point of view is to grow cargo at the airport, and it’s more about growing the number of jobs we are producing at the airport than raising volumes,” says Southwell.
He believes that cargo is ripe for development because of Atlanta’s route network, its “favourable location” within a two-hour flight of 80% of the US population and the fact that the airport is hugely under-utilised after the final daily passenger flights take-off or touch down at around 11pm.
“We have 63,000 employees on the airport campus and during the day it is really exciting to watch this kind of economic activity, but all this changes after about 10.30pm to 11pm each night.
“What we are trying to do is have an economic engine that runs 24 hours a day, and cargo fits this model perfectly, as it is an activity that traditionally happens overnight.
“We are not necessarily looking to compete with any airport per se, but because we want to drive more jobs.”
ATL’s cargo throughput in 2014 cemented its status as the tenth biggest cargo gateway in the US and the 35th busiest in the world.
He concedes that it will be difficult for ATL to move much higher up the world rankings because it doesn’t have the dedicated cargo airlines of airports like Hong Kong or Shanghai Pudong and isn’t the global hub of an express freight giant like FedEx, which is based in Memphis, but he still believes that ATL can become much more of a “significant” cargo player.
ATL’s cargo volumes have actually declined in recent years, but Southwell believes that the airport can address the balance by concentrating more on specific growth areas where it can offer a specialised service.
One such area is the ‘perishables’ market, which in the case of Atlanta covers everything from cut flowers, frozen meats and fresh fish to pharmaceuticals.
And in a bid to make it happen, ATL is investing in a range of new refrigerated facilities for perishable consignments, which Southwell hopes will convince more shippers to use the airport.
“We think that from a logistical point of view we have a superior location for increasing activities with perishable goods, particularly with items like flowers, most of which are driven past Atlanta today on refrigerated trucks heading to the north-east region of the country,” he says.
Although ATL hasn’t yet won an ACI Airport Service Quality (ASQ) award for customer service excellence, Southwell insists that this is in no way reflective of the customer service standards offered at his airport or its passenger-focused philosophy.
“I constantly receive feedback from people telling me how well they have been treated at the airport and firmly believe that hospitality is part of the culture in Atlanta and Georgia, so have no qualms in saying that we already do a good job in terms of customer service, which remains one of our A priorities,” he says.
“The challenge is how do we make things better. We have studied this very seriously and have decided that we will no longer treat exceeding customer expectations as our ultimate goal. Instead, we will concentrate on what the customer expects and then delight and surprise them.”
He notes that this new approach to customer service begins from the moment passengers enter the airport property and extends throughout the terminal building and airport site, covering every area of the business from speed of check-in to the condition of restrooms and availability of luggage carts in the baggage hall.
And the airport is set to hire a new customer service director from the hospitality industry to drive this forward.
There is certainly no denying that the airport’s ASQ scores among passengers have risen since the opening of Maynard H Jackson Jnr International Terminal, and with the number of overseas passengers increasing by around 7% per annum, it appears to have come online at a perfect time.
At the moment, international traffic only accounts for around 10.7 million or 11% of ATL’s total passenger throughput, but according to Southwell it is the “brightest and fastest-growing segment of the business”.
In fact such has been the growth in recent years that Southwell admits that at certain points in the afternoon the main international pier — Concourse F — can get quite congested.
If the growth rates continue, he tells Airport World that Concourse G might be something the airport gets “sooner rather than later”.
As it stands, ATL is looking at a six to eight year timeframe in terms of beginning the construction of Concourse G, although with the number of international passengers edging closer to the 10 million barrier each year, it seems almost certain this will have to be brought forward.
Atlanta Aerotropolis Alliance
Hartsfield-Jackson’s commitment to being a key economic engine and major employer for the Atlanta region means it should come as no surprise to learn of its key involvement with the Atlanta Aerotropolis Alliance.
The alliance is a collaborative effort to enhance the metro Atlanta’s position as a leader in the global economy by driving the co-ordinated development of commercial facilities, businesses and real estate on and around the 4,700-acre ATL site.
The initiative — which will ultimately lead to the development of the Atlanta Aerotropolis comprising the airport and a series of carefully planned commercial and social developments around it — is supported by ATL, the City of Atlanta and a host of surrounding cities, communities and economic development agencies as well as major companies such as Delta Air Lines, Georgia Power and Porsche Cars North America.
Southwell comments: “I share the view of Atlanta mayor, Kasim Reed, that an airport is more than just a place where people go to catch a flight.
“Indeed, Hartsfield-Jackson is the city’s chief tool for creating jobs and wealth for the people and businesses of Atlanta so we are constantly looking at ways of how we can use this great asset to create those jobs. Creating an airport city is just one way.
“Historically, in the US the commercial facilities that have been built around airports have tended to be warehouses and logistics operations for freight forwarders together with select or two-star hotels.
“We aim to change this in Atlanta by attracting more commercial and some residential developments. We expect the commercial developments to include four and five-star hotels, office blocks and shops and restaurants.”
Its efforts in collaboration with the Atlanta Aerotropolis Alliance and others have already persuaded Porsche Cars North America to relocate its US headquarters to Atlanta, and others are expected to follow.
Among the projects in the pipeline for the airport site are a four-star, 300-room hotel close to the international terminal and a service centre for cars with a light retail mix, while a two million square feet area has been set aside for mixed-use developments that are expected to include new offices, additional hotels and residential properties.
Southwell tells Airport World that six companies have expressed an interest in developing the two-million square feet site, which would generate $400 to $600 million for the airport.
“We are excited about being a part of this as it will escalate the development of the airport environment,” he enthuses.
“We will, of course, also continue to welcome the addition of new warehouses and other facilities more traditionally associated with an airport as it all leads to greater economic activity in and around Hartsfield-Jackson.”
Although Southwell doesn’t want to be drawn on any timescales, he reveals that he hopes the new 300-room hotel and service station will be built within the next 30 months.
What is ATL’s role in and goals for the alliance? “The airport is at the heart of everything and the goal is simply to spark economic development and attract investment into the community from within the States and overseas,” he says.
“Did you know that we now have 1,500 German companies in Atlanta. Porsche Cars North America recently moved its US headquarters to the airport and Mercedes-Benz is doing the same elsewhere in the city. This simply would not have happened if it hadn’t been for the airport and the ability to fly to Germany on a number of different airlines every day.”