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SMART thinking!

Joe Bates looks back at some of the highlights of July’s SMART Airports & Regions Conference and Exhibition which helped showcase the best in airport commercial development, IT innovation, strategic thinking and planning and design.

An airport leaders panel helped draw an impressive crowd of over 400 delegates to the opening sessions of the SMART Airports & Regions Conference & Exhibition in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.

In the spotlight were Edmonton International Airport’s Tom Ruth; Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport’s Greg Richardson; Greater Toronto Airport Authority’s Howard Eng; Seattle-Tacoma International Airport’s Lance Lyttle; and Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport’s Candace McGraw.

The CEO Panel, listed as ‘The Thinkery’, covered a wide range of topics broadly centred around the challenges and opportunities facing their respective airports now and in the future.

Edmonton’s president and CEO, Ruth, outlined some of the incredible developments going on at his airport today as the gateway looks to decrease its dependency on aeronautical revenues, boost its commercial income and cement its status as one of the region’s most important economic generators.

The projects include the recently opened outlet mall and the ongoing construction of an 800,000 square foot high-tech facility for growing medical cannabis, a giant COSTCO warehouse, new hotel, an eight-acre truck training track, horse racing track and an assortment of cargo, logistics and distribution facilities.

Ruth, who described EIA as Canada’s largest airport in the north and gateway to the north with more land than any other airport in the country, noted that when you build an airport city the development naturally radiates outwards for the entire region.

He said: “Why do we pursue commercial development? Well, we do it for several reasons, one of which is to create a passenger/tourist destination.

“Today, for example, we have almost as many people coming to the outlet mall as they do to the airport. This, of course, drives economic prosperity with 2,000 new jobs added this year alone based on all the commercial developments. Being a destination also drives passenger and cargo growth.”

He added that thanks to Alberta Aerospace and Technology Centre and another 30 incubated companies based at the airport, EIA today viewed itself as a laboratory for innovation.

Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta’s interim deputy general manager and CFO, Richardson, whose airport remains the world’s busiest handling in excess of 104 million passengers per annum, revealed that ATL had to find increasingly innovative ways of using and developing the airport site as its 4,700-acre plot of land was “relatively small” for an airport of its size, and effectively meant that having enough gates to meet rising demand would always be an issue.

But the airport is definitely up for the challenge as its $6 billion capital improvement programme, ATLNext, includes plans to modernise its existing facilities, add new parking and cargo complexes and a sixth runway to “boost the airport’s capacity, provide some extra gates and enhance the aesthetic appeal of Atlanta.”

ATL’s economic importance to Atlanta and the surrounding region remains huge, noted Richardson, the latest figures showing that it currently generates $64 billion in economic activity and is responsible for 450,000 jobs.

Greater Toronto Airport Authority (GTAA) president and CEO, Eng, touched on the ambition to develop Toronto Pearson into a ‘mega hub’ and the need to improve ground transportation links in order to reduce the time it takes to travel to the airport, which is expected to increase by 30% in the future as passenger numbers rise.

“If it takes too long to get anywhere, the region will no longer be an attractive place to visit and this will have an adverse impact. So, we are working with the regional government to create a transit hub at the airport,” said Eng.

Lyttle, managing director of Seattle-Tacoma, talked about his airport’s growing traffic figures – it is now the ninth busiest airport
in the US in terms of passenger numbers  – and rising economic impact, its reputation as a pioneer in the use of new technology and how $4 billion worth of investment on 30 different projects over the next decade will raise the gateway’s capacity to 57mppa by 2027.

While Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport’s CEO, McGraw, spoke about how her airport has bounced back from losing its status as a Delta hub to becoming one of the fastest growing gateways in the US with local passenger numbers up 63% in the last three years.

She said that a new more diversified business plan and a series of new cargo and commercial developments – which includes signing a deal with Amazon to build a new $1.5 billion Amazon Prime Air hub on 900 acres of land at CVG – ensured that 60% of its income now comes from non-aeronautical revenues.

“We’re not going to get caught flat-footed again by being too reliant on one tenant or one line of business,” said McGraw.

Asked to sum up in five words or less the top priorities they thought their gateways should adopt to become a SMART airport, the CEO panel offered some sound advice.

EIA’s Ruth stated: “Consistently being innovative and adaptable.” ATL’s Richardson commented: “Enhancing performance through collaborative innovation.” GTAA’s Eng offered: “Focus on reliability and consistency.” Little noted: “Innovation, flexibility, connectivity, knowledge and work.” And McGraw said: “Be agile and make decisions quickly.”

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The event – hosted by Edmonton International Airport (EIA) in partnership with Edmonton Economic Development, the Leduc Nisku Economic Development Association and Edmonton Global – began with welcome addresses from Ruth; Tanni Doblanko, mayor of Leduc County; Bob Young, mayor of Leduc; Sarah Hamilton, councillor, City of Edmonton; and Myron Keehn, vice president of air services and commercial development at Edmonton International Airport.

Doblanko referred to EIA as being the “heartbeat” of the region and Hamilton called it a “vital resource” for Edmonton and the surrounding region.

The opening sessions were followed by ‘The Thinkery – Part 2’, where more airport leaders – Charlotte-Douglas’ Stuart Hair; El Paso’s Monica Lambraña; Minneapolis-St Paul’s Brian Ryks; and Vancouver’s Craig Richmond – continued the conversation about the economic impact their respective gateways have on their respective regions.

Richmond touched on traffic growth, the C$9.1 billion in development projects needed at YVR over the next 20 years to ensure that it is equipped to meet future growth, and stressed the importance of connecting passengers, which he admitted continue to prove pivotal to the launch of most new long-haul routes.

In terms of innovation, he revealed that the airport had now sold close to 1,600 of its own developed BorderXpress kiosks to other airports, meaning that in certain months of the year it made more money from the machines and sales of other products than it did from parking.

He also felt that federal politicians often took his airport for granted despite it enjoying the greatest period of growth in its history, facilitating a significant C$16.5 billion in total economic activity, C$8.4 billion in GDP and C$1.4 billion in taxes and being served by more mainland Chinese carriers than any other airport in Europe or North America.

Ryks stated that MSP’s success in ACI’s Airport Service Quality (ASQ) customer satisfaction programme reflected its investment in customer service, and noted that its focus on air service development had been rewarded with the launch of 48 new routes since 2016, which created more competition on existing services and had driven down airfares.

“Our route development success can, in part, be put down to our outreach to the regional business community through the Regional Air Services Partnership,” said Ryks. “This is a partnership between the Metropolitan Airports Commission and Greater MSP, which is the regional economic development partner for the entire area, and engages executives at the CEO level from 3M, Ecolab, Xcel Energy, Minnesota Vikings and many other Fortune 500 companies.

“The unique thing about this is that we are not interested in past travel patterns. We are interested in looking forward, one to three years, to find out where these companies are going and more about emerging markets. As a direct result of these discussions Delta will launch a new direct service to Seoul in April next year.”

Delegates got to learn a little more about some of the world’s most ambitious airport city plans during the next session, where Aerotropolis Atlanta Alliance’s executive director, Shannon James, arguably stole the show with his informative and entertaining presentation about ATL and the aerotropolis-related real estate development going on within a 20-mile radius of Hartsfield-Jackson.

Stressing the importance of collaboration and co-operation, he said: “We are a public private partnership and our territory is very expansive covering two counties and 14 cities that view and utilise Hartsfield-Jackson as a central business district. We have developed a true regional approach to economic development where everyone shares the same vision, purpose, goals and objectives which makes navigating [the process] a lot easier.”

He added that the projected economic benefit of the planned developments, which include housing, hotels, offices, retail outlets and a host of other commercial facilities, was upwards of $1 billion and up to 10,000 new jobs.

Also on the panel were Greater Gaston Development Corporation’s Mark Cramer; Edmonton Metropolitan Region Board’s Malcolm Bruce; Hubstart Paris’ Elisabeth Le Masson and MAG USA’s CEO and president, Rosemarie Andolino.

Day one ended with a final session called ‘Next Airports & Smart Cities’ moderated by EIA’s Myron Keehn before delegates spent a thoroughly enjoyable evening at Fort Edmonton Park where the many highlights included streetcar and wagon rides; a trip to the theatre; and watching muskets being fired!

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Day two opened with a debate on ‘Disruption and Incubation’ before the programme divided into three separate sessions for the remainder of the event, essentially covering IT innovation, technology driven solutions and customer service in Stream A; Infrastructure development, intelligent design and sustainability in Stream B; and Airport centric development, including housing, and non-aeronautical revenue streams in Stream C.

ACI World’s ASQ manager Sevda Fevzi, and San Antonio International Airport’s always energised and entertaining chief customer experience office, Karen Ellis, spoke in the customer service focused session in Stream A.

While Tehran–Imam Khomeini International Airport’s chief development officer, Pieter van der Horst, offered this advice to all airports thinking of creating their own ‘aerotropolis’ or ‘airport city’ projects.

“The masterplan is just the start of the process and must be viewed in this way and developed as the game inevitably changes,” he warned. “I’ve seen so many airports develop master plans over the years and then they don’t know what to do with them, so after two to three years nothing happens and there are no investors. In the meantime, a new real estate manager comes onboard and they think that the master plan isn’t good, and the whole process starts again. Don’t let this happen to your airport.”

Prior to the conference delegates had the opportunity to take a tour of EIA – those on the Landside Tour had the chance to see Robo-bird, its falcon-like drone designed to scare real birds away from the airfield – and/or take part in MXD Development Strategists’ Discovery Workshop where a host of high-calibre speakers addressed the theme of SMART Airports – connectivity, innovation and opportunity.

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