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NEWS Last modified on August 4, 2017

CNN's Nick Valencia moderates airport leader panel at SMART Airports conference

All images courtesy of Aviation Media/Tadej Bernik. All images courtesy of Aviation Media/Tadej Bernik.

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 & 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 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.

However, he pointed out that an upturn in ‘local traffic’ originating in Charlotte over the last three years was changing the dynamic, and it was something he was pleased about as it showed that the market was healthy and growing.

“You know I will be ecstatic if we continue to experience an overall yearly increase in passenger traffic of around 2% to 3% and a 7% annual increase in O&D passengers long term, as it shows the vibrancy of the region and means that we will continue to be a fortress hub for American Airlines,” said Cagle.
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 talked about how the gateway has bounced back from a significant decline in traffic about a decade ago to adding a million new passengers per annum over the last three years. He noted that the first phase of its expanded International Arrivals Building in Terminal 1 opened last Friday and will help the Californian gateway cope with robust growth in international traffic.
Other topics covered during the lively debate included the potential loss of significant car parking revenues due to changes in the way people travel to airports; the importance of winning the support of local communities; attracting foreign investors; and schemes to reduce queues at airports

Cagle told delegates that there had been a rapid rise in noise complaints at CLT as its traffic has increased. Indeed, he revealed that complaints have risen from 7,000 in 2015 to 70,000 in 2016, and will possibly rise to 200,000 this year, although he put things in perspective by revealing that 95% of the complaints in 2016 came from 24 residents.

He said: “The community has always been very supportive of the airport, but clearly as we have got bigger, the number of noise complaints has gone up.

“Unfortunately, a few very loud voices tend to drown out the bigger conversation and all of the good things that come from airports, and this is disappointing as the pros by far outweigh the cons.”

In response to the potential future decline in car parking revenues due to initiatives such as the introduction of driverless cars, popularity of ride sharing companies such as Uber and Lyft, and the fact that most millennials apparently don't want to own a car, Oakland’s Francis noted that his airport’s decision to scrap plans to build a new 7,000-vehicle capacity parking deck a few years ago might prove to be a blessing in disguise.

While Sea-Tac’s Lyttle revealed that his airport was already thinking about what it would do with the world’s second largest airport car parking structure, located on the airport site, in 10 years time “when nobody wanted to use it”.

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 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 of the local community who were “never short of opinions.”

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 decision that are made, that it takes our concerns into consideration and that it is part of the community.”

More briefly, CLT’s Cagle said that he hoped that his airport would be considered an economic engine and good neighbour.
Earlier in the day, the conference opened with welcome addresses by Cagle and CLT’s community affair manager, Stuart Hair, while 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.

Charlotte’s world famous NASCAR Hall of Fame proved the popular setting for last night's Gala Evening where guests could eat, drink and be merry as well as enjoy more than 50 interactive exhibits and miles of memorabilia.

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