Beware the Experts

Whenever something happens that generates a lot of attention, you can Greg Principato - ACI-NA Presidentcount on a lot of expert commentary. In some cases, the expert really merits the label and is worth a listen. But most so-called experts fit into one of two other categories.

First is the instant expert who knows little but has a lot to say. All those water cooler experts on gymnastics and diving who will comment during the Olympics are the best example of this.

The second, and more insidious kind, are those who seek to take advantage of a difficult situation by fanning flames of fear, seeking to draw attention to themselves. An example of this kind of expert is the Business Travel Coalition (BTC) which is trying to use the current aviation industry crisis caused by high fuel prices to breed fear in communities around the country and make a name for themselves in the process.

The BTC has conducted a study, which is what this kind of “expert” usually does. They have decided to list dozens of airports they say will be losing their service. They call this effort “Save My Airport.”

I just returned from a meeting with dozens of airport directors, most in smaller communities that are at risk. Indeed, all have lost some service. But all of them, and their communities, together with their airline partners, are working hard to keep their communities linked to the air travel system. They all know, as do their constituents, that there is a fuel crisis, that times have changed, and that innovative action is called for. They are working to protect their communities and their economic growth.

What they don’t need is an organization a thousand miles away jumping in and fanning into fear their community’s legitimate concerns about air service. What they don’t need is an organization looking for attention, and revenue, by taking advantage of a crisis.

I went to their web site. It includes an ominous heading: “Airports at Risk.” It has a list of 50. I have spoken to some of those airport directors and they are outraged by what BTC is doing. BTC has no idea what is going on in their communities, and is hampering their efforts to meet the challenges they face. All BTC has are some criteria they made up in their ivory tower and a study that results from putting those criteria into a computer and pushing a button. They have no idea what is going on in those communities.

That is also obvious when you click on some of the links under the ominous headlines that predict the demise of this or that airport. The actual news items they are linked to tell stories of communities working hard. In at least one case, the link takes you to a story featuring an airport director saying the BTC is wrong. But you have to dig deep to find this. What they want you to do is read their headlines, get scared, and send an email and “sign up.” Must be time for a BTC membership drive.

Someone once said that an expert is someone more than 50 miles from home. I guess by that definition the BTC qualifies. But by no other.

Another Ball Park; A Hope for the Future

In 1945, after having secured victory in WWII, Winston Churchill was Greg Principato - ACI-NA Presidentdefeated in his bid for re-election. Mrs. Churchill is reported to have said: “perhaps it is a blessing in disguise.”. Sir Winston responded: “It’s a pretty damn effective disguise.”

While no one would describe today’s aviation challenges as a “blessing” many believe that opportunities and future growth do lie behind the “disguise.” This attitude was very much in evidence during ACI-NA’s annual Marketing and Communications Conference in the wonderful city of Pittsburgh. The Tuesday social event allowed me to visit yet another ballpark I had not previously seen as we attended a game at the beautiful PNC Park.

The conference drew approximately 400 attendees. Most were professionals in airport public relations and/or air service marketing. There were a large number of airport directors there, with many representing small airports. There were also several airline representatives and others. The conference is held in conjunction with our annual JumpStart event, which features a day-long series of airport-airline meetings. In normal times these meetings focus on the possibility of new air service. Attendees came from all over the United States and Canada.

Many of the conference presentations discussed fuel price spikes and other challenges facing the industry. But in contrast to the doom and gloom some might have expected, there was a palpable sense of energy throughout the meeting.

I think this comes from a realization that aviation is among the most resilient industries we have. I have written previously about the fact that presidents dating back to Truman have worried about the future of commercial aviation. There have been dire predictions before. But while the airline industry’s fortunes resemble a roller coaster, passenger travel has always grown, over time.

There is no indication that people in North America have lost the inclination to travel or ship by air. There will be growth again, at some point. Times are tough now, and some of the airport directors I met these past few days lost all their service. Almost all have lost something in recent weeks. But they had come to Pittsburgh to begin that process of looking to the future, of lifting the veil of that “damn effective disguise” and trying to create opportunity for their airports and communties.

Reflecting on my European meetings

I just got back home from the ACI Europe conference and two panelsGreg Principato - ACI-NA President really caught my attention.

First was a panel including government, airports, airlines and a representative of an environmental group (World Wildlife Fund). A similar panel last year at the same meeting produced fireworks and the crowd was ready for more. But they never came.

Rather, everyone acknowledged the importance of proactively addressing environmental concerns, be they noise, greenhouse gases or whatever. The industry reps talked about what they have done and continue to do. Government talked about progress made and the economic importance of air travel. The environmental representative agreed that much has been done, though of course warned that more is required. But it was very constructive.

The second was a panel of airport and airline representatives talking about the relationship between the two. The line that summed it all up for me was uttered by Dan Michaels, Aviation Editor for Wall Street Europe. He said that as a reporter, he covers airports and airlines separately, often focusing on areas of conflict. But as a passenger, he sees them as the same; all part of the system taking him where he needs to go. That’s exactly how most of our 2 billion worldwide passengers see it.

One of the often untold stories of aviation is how well airports and airlines tend to work together on a one-to-one basis. That is certainly true now, as airports and their tenant airlines work together to get through these tough times. Some (the International Air Transport Association, for example) want to portray conflict. The reality, though is much different on the ground, in many places around the world.

Airports — A Strong Partner for the Airlines

I’m at the ACI Europe annual meeting in Paris Greg Principato - ACI-NA Presidentand there is a lot of talk about airlines and airports. Indeed, European airline and airport leaders met today to discuss a number of issues including fuel costs, environment and capacity on the ground and in the air.

It is clear that airlines are facing tough times, though as I’ve written before, it is not all unprecedented. What is not always well enough appreciated, though, is the extent to which airports work with their airline partners at each individual airport. No airport wants to lose service. Airports want a strong airline industry. And they have proven it over and over again.

They work together to trim budgets during tough times. Airports take on tasks previously handled by airlines. Perhaps, the best example is the literal care and feeding of passengers whose flights are delayed or cancelled. This was previously an airline responsibility. Over time it has become an airport one.

Airports have been in the forefront of the fight for air traffic control modernization for two decades. For a long time, we were virtually a lone voice. Airlines got engaged in the issue only at the end of the last decade, the last time we had a delay and congestion crisis. But it has always been true that there is nothing the U.S. government can do to better help the airlines and the whole industry than modernize and reform the industry’s assembly line — air traffic control.

What goes up must come down, right? That is why airports work diligently to find efficient ways to put runways, taxiways, gates and other capacity enhancing facilities into place. Airports try to finance these improvements in ways that keep airline costs low and benefits high. And you might be surprised to know that these projects use very few tax dollars.

Airports are run as businesses. I was in the private sector before taking this job and I’ve met very few folks who are better business people than airport directors.

Airlines face some tough challenges today as do the communities that rely on their service. Airports will step up to help. But we will also work to enhance capacity because if we don’t, we’ll never be able to move ahead.

If not flying, then what?

I’m putting this together somewhere Greg Principato - ACI-NA Presidentover the Atlantic on the way to the ACI Europe meeting in Paris. The plane is mostly full. Some business travelers, some vacationers, some visiting family and some students. More than 200 people. This is a scene that is being replicated all over the skies across the Atlantic.

When I got to Paris, I saw planes from all over the world, all full of the same kind of people I saw on my flight.

As I’ve noted before, some think air travel is a bad thing and that it degrades the environment. But when you think of the other ways that are possible to send people a long distance, they seem woefully inadequate. Would we fill the seas with ships to move those people? There is really no alternative.

That’s why the strong environmental record of aviation is so important. There is simply no way to move so many people such distances with anything like the efficiency of aviation. That will be a major topic at the ACI Europe meeting, along with the current plight of the airlines, about which more in future posts.

Back to the people on my plane. Perhaps those who feel aviation should be curtailed should walk down the aisle and identify those they don’t believe should fly. I wonder what they’d say…..

Aviation’s Green Revolution

Next week, I will be attending the ACI Europe annual conference. In addition toGreg Principato - ACI-NA President attending the conference, I will also meet with European aviation leaders and with the ACI Europe board.

A key issue on the minds of aviation leaders in Europe is the environment.

It is not well known that aviation contributes well under 3 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions; and that airports are responsible for a small fraction of that. What is also not well known, even so, are the efforts the entire aviation community has made to reduce emissions, noise and other environmental impacts. Indeed, the environmental progress made by aviation over the past several years is astounding. And I am convinced that rising fuel prices will induce even greater efficiencies.

I understand the view that we must continue to make progress. I concur, and I know the industry will continue to make progress. What I do not understand is the view of some who equate progress with the reduction or elimination of air service. There is some mainstream opinion in Europe that has mooted the possibility of exactly that. They view the growth of air service as a bad thing. I cannot agree.

The worldwide aviation industry is committed to furthering the environmental progress we have made on all fronts. There is perhaps no other industry that has made the progress made by aviation in the past couple of decades. But we are not resting on our laurels. A joint statement issued recently by the world’s airports, airlines, aircraft manufacturers, and air navigation providers commits the industry to further progress. If you want to know what we’ve done as North American airports go to our web site, www.aci-na.org, and look at out publication “Going Green.” If you want to learn more about what the global industry has done, go to www.enviro.aero.

I will be writing more about this subject in the days and weeks ahead. It is important, it is something we take very seriously, and I look forward to hearing your views.

Smoked Meat, just what is it?

We had our summer board meeting last week in Mont Tremblant, Canada. Greg Principato - ACI-NA PresidentIt is a beautiful place and you should go if you ever get the chance.

On the way back, I was sitting in a restaurant in the Montreal airport looking at a menu. What jumped out at me was “Viande Fumee” or Smoked Meat. As anyone who goes to Montreal knows, this is a local delicacy. If you ask whether it is really corned beef, you’ll get a firm “No, it is Smoked Meat”. If you ask whether it is pastrami, you’ll get the same answer. “It is Smoked Meat.” Once you take a bite into it; you don’t care what it is; it is just soooo good.

There was a time when you could get whatever you wanted at an airport, as long as it was a hot dog or cold pizza. Now, in keeping with the idea that the airport has become the town square of the global economy, you are likely to find the same foods you would find downtown; and in most airports, you will find those items at the same price. Most airports require street pricing of the items sold at the airport, a passenger-friendly development that is among the most underrated customer service trends of recent years.

Oh yes, you can still get hot dogs and pizza in the airport. But the hot dogs are good and reasonably priced; and the pizza is hot and reasonably priced. Now that we have entered the summer storm season, a time when many travelers will spend more time in the airport than they bargained for, this is welcome news indeed.