At first glance, February’s appointment of Miami-Dade Water and Sewer Department director, Lester Sola, to the position of director and CEO of the Miami-Dade Aviation Department (MDAD) seemed a strange one.
There was certainly no doubting his management credentials as when he was director of the largest utility in the south eastern United States, Sola was responsible for providing high-quality drinking water and wastewater disposal services to more than 2.3 million residents, businesses and visitors daily.
He managed more than 2,700 employees, had an annual operating budget of $796 million, and led a $13 billion capital investment programme, the largest in the history of Miami-Dade County.
But, crucially, what did he know about airports and more specifically MDAD’s jewel in the crown, Miami International Airport (MIA)?
Well, the answer may surprise you, as Sola is not only familiar with MIA having used it for most of his life and been an employee of airport operator, Miami-Dade County, for more than 26 years, but he has actually worked at it twice before on different projects.
In fact, his background meant that he already knew most of MIA’s senior managers, and was aware of what needs to be done to make the airport even more successful, long before moving into the hot seat on February 16, 2018, making him the perfect man for the job.
“Having achieved the goals in my previous assignment, the chance to come back to Miami International Airport as director was an experience and an opportunity I couldn’t pass up,” enthuses Sola.
“Nobody had to bring me up to speed with Miami International Airport as I know it very well having spent my entire career with Miami-Dade County. My first job was at the airport and this is the third time I have worked here, so my perspective is a little different to previous directors who didn’t have my knowledge and experience of MIA and had to transition into the role.
“Having previously worked alongside many people I now call my colleagues was also an advantage as we didn’t have to go through the normal process of getting to know each other, and I already knew their the strengths and abilities.
“I also consider that being familiar with the style of government we operate under is a positive, particularly when it comes to building support from our board of directors, which for us is a board of county commissioners.”
So how have the first nine months gone? “I am enjoying it and think that with traffic rising, a number of new route launches, and MIA celebrating its 90th birthday in September, it’s been a good 2018 for the airport,” he says.
An often overused expression in management is ‘my door is always open’, and invariably this doesn’t turn out to be the case. However, when Sola uses it, and in the same breath notes that he likes to be visible and can often be seen walking through the terminal talking to staff, you tend to believe him.
He describes his management style as “very easy going for the most part, but objective driven and highly intent on achieving my goals.”
“I tend to be approachable, walk a lot, and talk to everyone in the entire spectrum of the organisation to get a feel for different perspectives and learn how we’re doing and what areas we need to improve upon,” says Sola.
“In my previous role with the Miami-Dade Water and Sewer Department, for example, I would often go out on site to see for myself what was going on and whether there was anything I could do to make life easier for people. You tend to learn more by getting direct feedback from staff rather than receiving filtered, second-hand information.
“Outside people may misinterpret this kindness and openness as a weakness, but for me it’s actually a significant strength that I use to drive information from different sources to basically establish a plan forward that will allow us to continue to improve this airport and maintain a competitive advantage.”
He accepts that not everyone will like his refreshingly open and honest approach, as some people are naturally wary of change, but says that the reaction to it to date from MIA staff has been overwhelmingly positive, with some long-serving employees revealing that he is the first airport director they have talked to in 35 years.
Biggest challenges and opportunities
Sola believes that in many ways MIA’s biggest strength, its enviable route connections to Central and South America and the Caribbean, also presents the Florida gateway with its greatest challenge as economic downturn in any of these regions has a significant impact on traffic.
To put this in perspective, today, 23 airlines operate non-stop routes to 81 destinations in Mexico, Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC). The total ensures that MIA accounts for 79% of the US market with LAC.
Indeed, MIA is North America’s undisputed hub for passengers travelling between the US and Latin America. During 2017 the airport handled 43% of the US-South American passenger market, 22% of the US-Central American market, and 23% of the US-Caribbean market.
All ensure that MIA is the largest connecting point for flights between the Americas and for flights between the Americas and Europe.
So, when economies across the LAC region are doing well, MIA invariably does well as more people tend to travel more often. However, it is exactly the reverse during recessions, with the airport inevitably feeling the pinch during the hard times, such as the recent economic downturn in Brazil.
“While geographically, language, and the ease of conducting business in Miami really lends itself well towards the region where we are dominant, we are vigorously looking to expand our route network to the rest of the world to make us less exposed to economic downturns across Latin America and the Caribbean,” admits Sola.
The recent addition of a new route to Milan (Air Italy), imminent arrival of Canadian low-cost carriers Flair (Edmonton, Winnipeg, Toronto) and Sunwing Airlines (Montréal, Quebec City, Toronto, Ottawa), increased frequency on the Copenhagen route (SAS), and announcements that LOT Polish Airlines and Royal Air Maroc intend launching new services to Warsaw and Casablanca respectively next year, would indicate that the plan is working.
As a result of this strategy, Sola notes that MIA is currently served by over 100 airlines that between them offer non-stop services to 156 destinations in 60 countries across the globe, including 15 in Europe.
“We are actively pursuing new opportunities in Asia as it is an important, yet relatively untapped market for us,” reveals Sola. “A few years ago, we had no direct flights at all, but now we have several cargo flights operating year-round services.”
The all-cargo services operated by a combination of Asiana Airlines, Cathay Pacific, China Airlines, Korean Air, Polar Air and Southern Air, essentially import technology into MIA for onward distribution to LAC and export food and perishables such as seafood and flowers from the region back to Asia-Pacific.
“The next step is the introduction of passenger services from Asia to MIA that will allow passengers to interconnect through our network to South America,” he says. “It hasn’t happened yet, but we are working on it.”
On route development in general, he notes: “It is an ongoing endeavour to pursue the airlines to persuade them to launch new routes. We have a dedicated team whose mission is to make this happen, and one of the ways they do this is by putting business cases to the airlines and showing them that the choice of coming to MIA is a profitable one.”
The range and variety of new routes, and the operators themselves, which include legacy carriers, low-cost carriers and cargo airlines, arguably provide the best endorsement of MIA’s route development success.
MIA’s extensive route network to the LAC region and growing number of destinations elsewhere means that it more or less enjoys a 50/50 split between domestic and international traffic.
São Paulo, London, Buenos Aires, Mexico City and Lima are among the most popular international destinations served from MIA, which handled nearly 60% of the international visitors to Florida last year.
The bulk of passengers welcomed at MIA travel with hub carrier American Airlines, which accounted for around 67% of the 44 million passengers to pass through the gateway in 2018.
After American and American Eagle, other big players at MIA in terms of market share include Delta, United, Frontier and LATAM Airlines.
New York is the busiest domestic route served from MIA followed by Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas/Fort Worth, Los Angeles and Washington DC.
American 100% occupies the North Terminal while the Central and South terminals are a mix of different airlines, with big US carriers Delta and United located more in the southern portion of the airport complex and many international carriers flying into the Central Terminal. “Our ability to provide as close to a 50/50 mix between domestic and international traffic as you are going to find, and range of destinations served, has proven very beneficial as it ensures quick and easy connections across the US or to LAC and beyond,” notes Sola.
The upturn in passenger numbers has also been boosted by a booming local economy and rising population in Miami-Dade County, which now exceeds 2.7 million people, many of which regularly use domestic services out of MIA for business trips.
In general, passenger numbers have been on the increase since 2004, although the annual total did dip slightly in 2017, due to the impact of Hurricane Irma.
Sola explains that in addition to grounding flights when it hit Southern Florida in early September, it forced the airport to wind down operations three to four days before it struck and it then took the equivalent time for everything to return to normal after it passed.
Sola is currently working with his management team on a new master plan for MIA, which he hopes to present to his board of county commissioners before the end of 2018.
He reveals that it will involve investing more than $4.5 billion on infrastructure improvements over the next five to ten years to ensure that MIA is equipped to meet future demand.
“We are not just looking at the terminals, we are looking at the entire footprint of MIA and our general aviation airports,” he tells Airport World. “We will be making significant investments in cargo operations and increasing the capacity of the terminals and their ability to handle new versions of aircraft.”
This will involve expanding the North Terminal to allow for the addition of more gates and the modernisation of the Central Terminal and its Concourse F to make it more operationally efficient and customer friendly.
He notes that MIA has the airfield capacity to accommodate around 80 million passengers per annum with its existing runways, so the airport is not looking to add any new ones for now.
Away from MIA, Sola reveals it is likely that one of Miami-Dade’s four general aviation airports will be transformed into a cargo gateway.
Sola believes that new technology will also play a significant role in enhancing the passenger experience and raising MIA’s capacity, so the airport is determined to remain at the cutting edge when it comes to IT innovation.
He reminds me that in February, MIA’s Concourse E became the first in the US to exclusively use biometric facial recognition technology to screen all passengers arriving on international flights, and that this has allowed US Customs and Border Protection to process up to 10 passengers per minute.
The technology, says Sola, will soon be rolled out across the airport in collaboration with MIA’s federal partners.
Its determination to be at the forefront of technological innovation also recently led the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to name MIA as one of only two US airports to be selected as test sites for emerging perimeter intrusion detection and deterrence security technologies.
All the technologies trialled at MIA have been developed and tested in other high-risk transportation and public area venues. The lessons gained from the pilot programme in the airport environment could be replicated by the TSA nationwide.
“We look forward to being on the frontline of this cutting-edge security technology,” enthuses Sola. “Opportunities like this, which assist us in providing a safer and more efficient airport for passengers and business partners alike, will always be welcomed with open arms.”
Boosted by a number of new freighter services and a rise in bellyhold shipments on scheduled passenger services, the US’s top airport for international cargo handled a record 2.24 million tons of freight in 2017.
And the upturn is expected to continue this year with the 3% rise in volumes in the year to date perfectly in line with the expected annual increases of around 3% to 4% over the next few years.
MIA benefited from three new international cargo carriers last year (Qatar Airways, TACA Peru and Aeronaves TSM) and they were recently joined by Ethiopian Airlines, which launched twice weekly B777-200 freighter services to Addis Ababa in August.
Sola is confident that things can only get better for cargo and believes that the US Department of Commerce’s decision to designate Miami International Airport’s entire 3,230-acre site as a Foreign Trade Zone will make Miami-Dade County an even more attractive place to
The decision allows existing or prospective airport tenants to operate manufacturing, warehousing and/or distribution centres on airport property, and have their federal tariffs deferred, reduced or eliminated – providing time and cost savings for approved importers and exporters.
As a result, companies handling high-traffic commodities at MIA such as pharmaceuticals, electronics, textiles, footwear, auto parts, aircraft parts, avionics, machinery equipment, consumer goods and perishables are expected to make up the bulk of the FTZ’s tenants.
MIA boasts a total of 18 dedicated cargo buildings today and these will be added to in the near future as Sola admits that the airport is already having to turn away consignments because it simply doesn’t have the facilities to handle any more freight.
MIA hasn’t yet joined ACI’s Airport Service Quality (ASQ) customer satisfaction benchmarking programme, but this certainly doesn’t mean that providing a good airport experience is a low priority for the airport.
Indeed, Sola insists that it is a top priority for MIA and believes that everyone at the airport, and not just frontline staff, are an ambassador for the airport and have a role to play in ensuring that Miami International Airport is one of the most welcoming in the US.
“We are often the first and last impression people get of Miami and therefore take customer service very seriously,” he says. “We work with JD Power and a number of other consultants to measure our performance today, and how we can improve our operations in the future.
“If you are an aviation employee at the airport or report to me then you have a part to play in ensuring a good experience for passengers and visitors to MIA. It doesn’t matter if it’s not your job. If you see someone lost in the terminal, stop and help them out. If you notice that the toilets need cleaning, tell someone. We are all in this together.”
Sounds like MIA is in good hands to me.