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EVENTS NEWS Last modified on July 14, 2015

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Airport development and master planning was top of the agenda at the recent SMART Airports & Regions Conference and Exhibition in Atlanta, writes Joe Bates.

Innovative airport design, sustainable growth and master plans for the creation of new commercial developments on airport land or just over the fence were all part of the programme of the first SMART Airports conference held in the US.

Arguably the highlight of Day 1 was an aviation leaders panel chaired by CNN news anchor and chief business correspondent, Christine Romans, which helped draw a bumper crowd of close to 500 delegates to the opening sessions.getsmart image1

Romans, a well-known face in the US, moderated a panel that contained Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport’s Miguel Southwell; Vancouver International Airport’s Craig Richmond; Miami’s Emilio Gonzalez; Philadelphia International Airport’s Mark Gale and Delta’s Holden Shannon.

Southwell, Hartsfield-Jackson’s aviation general manager, noted that the role of Hartsfield-Jackson is a city or region’s chief tool for economic development and driving jobs.

A key member of the Atlanta Aerotropolis Alliance, Southwell noted that co-operating, collaborating and working with the City of Atlanta and the many different jurisdictions and municipalities surrounding Hartsfield-Jackson alone took up around 40% of his time.

Richmond, president and CEO of Vancouver Airport Authority, said some of the reasons behind the popularity and success of YVR included its ‘sense of place’ artwork, reputation for delivering top quality customer service, retail innovation, growing route network and investment in new technology such as its Border Express kiosks,
which it has since exported to a number of US airports. 

“Route development is good for the economy. We plan to add five million more passengers per annum by 2020 and that equates to between 5,000 and 7,000 new jobs for the region,” stated Richmond.

Gonzalez noted that MIA was the biggest economic engine in Florida by generating $33.7 billion in economic impact each year and employing a quarter of the population of southern Florida.

“If an airport is not breathing life into the economy, there is something wrong,” he said, revealing that this importance to the social and economic prosperity of communities came with its own pressures as making mistakes could have huge ramifications for a lot of people.

“I don’t want to be the one that screws things up,” he joked.

Philadelphia International Airport CEO, Mark Gale, admitted that his airport was landlocked by surrounding developments, which made it hard for it to establish its own aerotropolis.

In answering a question about what one piece of regulation he would change, Gale stated that he believed the current US legislation for funding and promoting airport development needed an overhaul as it “shackled” many gateways.

The conference opened with a welcome address by the deputy mayor of Atlanta, Cesar Mitchell, president of Atlanta City Council, and the mayor of College Park, Jack Longino.

Mitchell praised the regional leadership of Folz and the Atlanta Aerotropolis Alliance and work and vision of Southwell in his second stint as Hartsfield-Jackson after working for the gateway earlier his career.

He noted that airports had become central to people’s everyday lives and business, calling them “places of connectivity, innovation, culture, economic delivery and gateways to the world.”

“Our airport is great, and if we work on our strengths we will continue to be great, but if we want to get even better the way forward is to work on improving our weaknesses,” said Mitchell.

During his presentation, Southwell reiterated his belief that airports are a key economic tool for cities and regions and places where people can work, rest and play.

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Meanwhile, Joe Folz, chairman of the Atlanta Aerotropolis Alliance and vice president and general counsel and secretary of Porsche Cars North America – which relocated its North American HQ to Atlanta because of the existence of Hartsfield-Jackson – said he was proud that the company’s new $120 million facility was just a 10 minute drive from ATL.

“Being located here was perfect for Porsche as it makes visiting us and our Experience Centre, the first outside of Europe, within a day’s reach of 80% of the population of the USA,” enthused Folz.

The driving force behind the formation of the Atlanta Aerotropolis Alliance, Doug Hooker, executive director of the Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC), told delegates: “The alliance seeks to leverage the airport’s economic power to increase economic development, mobility and quality of life and presence for communities neighbouring the airport. 

“The Alliance is focused on creating a business hub centred on Hartsfield-Jackson, attracting more corporate headquarters, businesses, retail, jobs and housing. Such a hub is critical to the success of our region. 

“There are tens of thousands of people living in this area and the more jobs we can bring closet to their homes, the less congestion we will have in other places around the region.”

In a dedicated session on master planning, Lambert-St Louis International Airport’s director, Rhonda Hamm-Niebruegge, explained how the airport had to reset its goals and ambitions to match today’s status as the 31st biggest US airport compared to the eighth busiest back in 1999.

She said this had meant coming up with a new 20-year master plan to replace one that previously focused on its major hub status (based on the presence of hub carriers TWA and then American), formulating strategic five year plans and focusing on the key goals of financial stability, sustaining and growing air service, enhancing the customer experience and economic development.

Economic development included finding ways of raising the airport’s non-aeronautical related revenues to help pay off its $1 billion debt associated with opening of the fourth runway in 2007, noted Hamm-Niebruegge.

“We have gone from being a major hub to a medium hub and needed to revise our master plan to reflect this,” she remarked. “We have also engaged with the community to reassure them about the value of the airport and that that we are going in the right direction.

“We are still a major economic engine with 265 flights a day to 68 destinations and a workforce of 6,000 taking into account all the tenants. People had forgotten this because they wanted what we had before, but that’s history now.”

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Berlin Brandenburg Airport’s head of corporate planning and strategy, Uwe Hörmann, admitted that it would be a challenge for the city’s existing airport infrastructure to keep up with demand, improve passenger customer satisfaction levels and boost non-aeronautical revenues until the much-delayed opening of the new airport finally happens in 2017.

However, such has been the delay in its opening – Germany’s new €4.3 billion Berlin Brandenburg Airport was meant to be unveiled in 2012 – that Hörmann noted that its opening capacity of 27mppa would now not be enough to accommodate demand on its own, meaning that one of the city’s existing gateways would have to remain open.

That would most likely be Schönefeld, he told Airport World, despite it only handling 7.2 million of the near 28 million passengers to use Berlin’s airports in 2014, as keeping its existing facilities open would effectively be like operating two airports on the same site.

In a highly entertaining session about innovative airport design and development, Alliance’s Eric Peterson revealed how his firm often based its designs on key words or images identified by clients or various stakeholders during the planning process.

He explained that this involved picking words, phrases or images that “most resonated with people” about an airport or location.

The process, he said, led to the ‘landscape’ and progressive, forward looking ‘spirit’ of Little Rock providing the inspiration for the design of Bill and Hilary Clinton National Airport’s new terminal, while ‘culture’ (music, art, the civil rights movement etc) was the driving force behind its work at Memphis International Airport.

Tourism Richmond’s CEO, Tracy Lakeman, discussed the international appeal of Richmond, the importance of Vancouver International Airport and role of destination marketing in promoting the region and developing its route network.

Lakeman, whose organisation will co-host next year’s SMART Airports & Regions Conference & Exhibition in Richmond, British Columbia, said: “If you are an airport and you are not working with your CBD or DMO (destination marketing organisation), you should be.”

Around 500 delegates, 75 speakers and 40 exhibitors attended the event, which was jointly hosted by the Atlanta Aerotropolis Alliance and Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport at the Georgia International Convention Center (GICC).

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