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Joe Bates reports on the highlights of the recent SMART Airports & Regions Conference and Exhibition in Charlotte, North Carolina.

An airport leaders panel chaired by CNN correspondent, Nick Valencia, helped draw a bumper crowd of 400 delegates to the opening sessions of the SMART Airports & Regions Conference and Exhibition in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Valencia moderated the panel that included Charlotte Douglas International Airport’s aviation director, Brent Cagle; Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport’s general manager, Roosevelt Council, Jr; Port of Seattle’s managing director – aviation, Lance Lyttle; Oakland International Airport’s director of aviation, Bryant Francis; and Tallahassee International Airport’s director of aviation, Thomas Curry.

The session, listed as the ‘SMART 360 Debate – Strategic Partnerships in Aviation for Economic Development – covered a wide range of topics broadly centred around from the challenges and opportunities facing their respective airports now and in the future.

Roosevelt Council Jr, the man in charge at the world’s busiest passenger gateway, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL), talked about the economic and social impact of his gateway, which in 2016 handled a record breaking 104 million passengers – three million more than the previous year.

And with growth showing no signs of slowing down, he noted that his airport had begun a $6 billion expansion programme to ensure that it remains equipped to meet demand for the next 20 years and beyond.

He said: “We are adding gates, we’re adding new parking facilities and we’re adding a new runway to make us even more efficient and to maximise our capacity.”

Council also touched on plans to create an aerotropolis (Aerotropolis Atlanta) around the gateway to enhance ATL’s status as a key economic driver for the region, creating jobs and prosperity for the local population.

Charlotte Douglas’ Cagle revealed that unlike many gateways, CLT continued to do well during the recession, noting that “incredible growth in connecting traffic over the last 15 years” meant that his airport was now the largest connecting hub in the US with 75% of all passengers transiting in Charlotte.

Seattle-Tacoma’s Lyttle talked about his airport’s status as one of the fastest growing airports in North America and the need to upgrade the airport’s 1970s built facilities to keep pace with rising demand driven by the region’s booming economy.

Tallahassee’s Curry commented on the success of the airport’s intermodal links, ongoing development of new roadways and making use of its large land envelope.

“We are working under the concept of build it and they will come, because what we see is that most of Florida’s airports are landlocked, and we want to be in a position to receive a lot of the expected Latin American economic activity when it pushes north,” said Curry.

Oakland’s Francis pointed out that his gateway has bounced back from a significant decline in traffic about a decade ago and is currently adding around a million new passengers per annum.

Asked what measures and processes they had in place to listen to the customer service needs of passengers at their airports, CLT’s Cagle said that his gateway’s initiatives included regularly carrying out its own customer surveys and organising panel discussions of leisure and business travellers and, if appropriate, acting upon on their comments.

Tallahassee’s Curry noted that apart from surveys and the typical ways that airports gain information about their passengers, his gateway’s advisory board was made up of 18 members from the local community who were “never short of opinions.”

And in response to what they hoped their local communities would say about their respective airports in five years’ time, Oakland’s Francis remarked: “I hope they say much of what they say today, that we are an easy and convenient airport to use, and maybe in ten years time will also add the word, modern, to describe our facilities.”

Seattle-Tacoma’s Lyttle said: “I would like them to say that this airport is our airport and that we are engaged with all the decisions that are made, that it takes our concerns into consideration and that it is part of the community.”

And, more briefly, CLT’s Cagle said that he hoped that his airport would be considered an economic engine and good neighbour.

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Earlier in the day, the conference opened with welcome addresses by Cagle and CLT’s community affair manager, Stuart Hair, and conference chairman and president and CEO of MXD Development Strategists, Chris LeTourner, outlined a number of innovative, non-traditional commercial development projects at airports across North America.

While Mayor of Charlotte, Jennifer Roberts, emphasised the need for airports and cities to be smart and work together to provide the best possible service for their regions.

She told delegates and more than 50 exhibitors from 20 countries that Charlotte appreciated the “incredibly important role” CLT plays in the growth and development of one of the US’s most “dynamic” cities, going as far as to state that the gateway’s future success was vital towards to it fulfilling its vision of being a “winning city of tomorrow.”

Other highlights of Day 1 included panel discussions on ‘Preparing for 2030 And Beyond – Next Airports/Cities/Regions’ and ‘Regional Cooperation Strategies In Planning, Land Use and Ground Transportation’, which featured a host of North American airport CEOs and aviation experts that included Rhonda Hamm-Niebruegge (St Louis Lambert); Candace McGraw (Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky); and Monica Lombraña (El Paso).

In the ‘Preparing for 2030 And Beyond – Next Airports/Cities/Regions’ debate, St Louis Lambert’s Hamm-Niebruegge stated that she thought that community engagement was one of the most critical components in the day-to-day life of an airport.

However, she admitted that this was far from the case when she joined the gateway in 2010 as the airport, city and its population was still struggling to come to terms with the traffic decline and subsequent local job losses brought about by it no longer being a TWA or American Airlines hub.

The “disconnent”, as she put it, between the airport and the community, actually made people dislike St Louis Lambert, which is why she decided to introduce a new community engagement programme shortly after coming on board in early 2010.

“People didn’t understand what had happened and wanted someone to blame for St Louis no longer being a hub. They blamed the airport and the only thing they wanted to hear was when would we become a hub again,” she said.

“This made me realise that an education and engagement process was long overdue as expectations had to be more realistic.”

Fast forward seven years and she noted that the airport is now actively engaged with the local community – including when it comes to formulating its strategic plan – and on target to handle 15 million passengers this year – an impressive 10% rise on 2016.

An exciting and eventful first day ended with a Gala Evening at the NASCAR Hall of Fame, which pays homage to history and heritage of NASCAR through more than 50 interactive exhibits and miles of memorabilia.

Day 2 comprised three steams of conference sessions covering everything from master planning and design to IT innovation, land use and commercial development to customer service excellence.

Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta’s deputy aviation manager, Balram Bheodari; Columbus Regional Airport Authority’s chief development officer, Shannetta Griffin; and Metropolitan Washington Airport Authority’s Department of Planning manager, Gregg Wollard, talked about their respective airport’s development plans during a session on ‘Redefining the Infrastructure Master Plan’.

Despite only being in the job two weeks, Griffin spoke about the New Terminal and Midfield Development Program at John
Glen Columbus International Airport (formerly Port Columbus), which includes plans for a new parking garage and rental car facility, new hotel and possibly the future addition of a new
light rail system.

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She told delegates that the Ohio airport operator had considered a number of different scenarios, changing passenger demographics and airline trends when looking to the future, and in all of them a new terminal was needed because the existing facility, currently handling 7.3 million passengers yearly, is beginning to approach the end of its lifespan.

“The airport’s vision is to connect Ohio to the world and the key elements of our development programme will make sure that part of the vision comes to life,” enthused Griffin.

Wollard revealed more details about a number of innovative design features in MWAA’s $1.3 billion plan to transform the passenger experience at Washington’s Reagan National Airport
by 2021.

The improvements include the addition of a new commuter concourse and the construction of two new security checkpoint buildings above the Terminal B/C arrivals roadway, each directly connected to National Hall and walkways from the Metrorail station and parking garages.

The new commuter concourse will replace 14 outdoor gates currently served by buses from gate 35X. The multi-year upgrade also includes improvements to roadways and new parking configurations.

The panel – moderated by IATA’s head of airport development, David Stewart – also included William Lebegern, HNTB’s associate vice president; aviation project director – Carolinas, who spoke about the potential benefits of the adoption of autonomous baggage systems.

Covering something a little different, Metropolitan Airports Commission’s director of MSP operations, Phil Burke, and Alliiance’s president, Eric Peterson, chose to focus on the work they have done, and continue to do, to enhance access for people with disabilities at Minneapolis-St Paul International Airport.

Burke revealed that MSP is currently in the process of “a very ambitious project to completely remodel and redesign the entire Arrivals and Departure levels” of its 1950s built main terminal building, and within the project is the aspirational goal to become “the most accessible airport in the world”.

As a result of its goal, MSP will ensure that every corner of the revamped terminal will be easily accessible and navigable to all, including its shops and F&B outlets, seating areas and restrooms.

Peterson said: “It is important to recognise what percentage of your travellers we are talking about, as according to the Open Doors organisation, 15% of the US population identifies with having some form of disability.

“To put that in perspective, that is some 36 million citizens, around a third of which have flown in the last two years, which equates to 11 million passengers and 23 million trips, which is a sizeable portion of the travelling public.”

Their joint presentation came during a conference session entitled ‘Design Intelligence – Smart Airport Design & Development’ and featured fellow panellists Ted Anasis, San Diego County Regional Airport Authority’s manager for airport planning; Jack Christine, deputy aviation director at Charlotte Douglas International Airport; and Stanis Smith, executive vice president at Stantec.

The event itself was preceded by organised airport tours of Charlotte Douglas and the pre-conference discovery workshop, ‘Where Innovation and Opportunity Connect’, facilitated by Chris LeTourneur and MXD Development Strategists.

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