Looking Back on Boston . . . from Maine

I’m writing this from Maine, where I’ve gone to stay at the home of a friend after our week-long, worldwide, annual meeting. Maine is one of five states I’d never visited, so that list is down by 20%. And, before we drove up here, we visited the graves of John and John Quincy Adams, making good progress on another of the life goals. The Adams grave sites make a stark impression. Especially when you consider that they are filled with two presidents, two of our great first ladies, the chair of the committee that produced the Declaration of Independence and the man (as Monroe’s Secretary of State) who produced the Monroe Doctrine (many historians consider JQA the greatest Secretary of State ever).

I’d also recommend highly the southern coast of Maine. Lots of beautiful scenery, friendly people and great food.

The time spent here has provided an opportunity for some final reflections on our Boston meeting.

We had over 2,300 attendees. While the vast majority of them were from North America, especially the United States, 49 total countries were represented.

A joint board meeting early in the week between the ACI-North America board and the ACI Europe board produced two hours of very high level discussion. This included a joint statement issued on the importance of achieving open skies agreements between the U.S .and EU and Canada and the EU. This importance of this statement and cross-Atlantic support was highlighted last week in a speech by the chief EU negotiator before the International Aviation Club. In the speech he referred directly to the joint ACI statement. The statement also highlighted the need to harmonize security regimes across the Atlantic, especially on liquids and gels.

The following day featured a meeting of the ACI World Board. On this board sit airport leaders from all over the world. The mix of cultures and viewpoints is quite something to behold, but all share a dedication to the well being of their communities and passengers.

I have already written about our opening session with Dr. Alfred Kahn, who is not only the father of airline deregulation in the United States, but whose work it can fairly be said changed the worldwide industry and led to the widespread creation of, among other things, the low fare airline. That night, ACI World celebrated the graduation of its first class of international airport professionals. This new IAP accreditation, a joint program with ICAO, will soon become a global standard for the industry.

The following day featured a series of very substantive sessions on congestion, airport ownership, airline consolidation, environment, and airport financial performance. Panels featured speakers from all ACI global regions.

All this time, our exhibit hall, featuring nearly 300 booths, was open to attendees. Participants could see the latest in technology, concessions concepts, consulting and other services.

We were also pleased to hold two special meetings with TSA leadership, which provided a valuable opportunity for airport leaders in the U.S. to meet with these important regulators.

On Wednesday, we closed with sessions on safety and security, along with the chairman’s honors lunch. At the lunch, we gave our highest public relations award to Edmonton and our highest environmental awards to Boston, Minneapolis and Seattle. And, as already documented in an earlier post, we gave our most prestigious individual award to the late Wally Burg who not only led Tucson’s airport through a period of impressive growth, but whose leadership was widely recognized throughout the global airport industry. His wife, Sue, accepted the award on his behalf. Also making remarks in Wally’s memory were current Tucson Airport director Bonnie Allin and Oris Dunham, himself a true lion of the global industry.

Perhaps the most compelling memories are of meeting with the African airport leaders whose attendance at the conference was possible because of the generosity and vision of Ben DeCosta (Atlanta), John Clark (Jacksonville) and Jim Cherry (Montréal). The delegate from Madagascar approached me at the final night event at the JFK Library and Museum, and with his eyes glistening, thanked us for making his participation possible. He talked about the benefit of such opportunities to airport leaders from the developing world. It was truly a personal highlight of the meeting for me.

For ACI-North America, we move to another great American city, Austin, Texas for our 2009 meeting. We will next meet together with ACI World in Calgary in 2012.

Thoughts from the Ballpark

Writing from Fenway Park. I know I’m taking a chance of ending up like the Drew Barrymore Greg Principato - ACI-NA Presidentcharacter in that movie Pennant Fever when she was looking at her computer, a book or something during the game and got hit in the face by a foul ball.

Fenway Park is a place everyone should see, especially on a beautiful early fall night like this. I’ve been here several times in the past, so this is already on my list of ballparks visited

Boston is turning out to be a great place to hold a meeting of the world’s airport leaders. Today we heard from experts all over the world about topics such as congestion, airline consolidation, environment, airport ownership models and airport financial performance benchmarks. What you see is that there is no one way to do things, that results are what counts and that airport managers know how to get results

You also see that much of this, all over the world, is accomplished without any sort of government mandate. It is accomplished as a result of prudent and visionary leaders working hard to do the right things for their communities and passengers

(Still haven’t missed a pitch. Johnny Bench is sitting a few rows away…)

All of our more than 2,200 attendees have enjoyed Boston, but our international guests, representing 49 countries, have especially enjoyed this wonderful city. For many, it is their first visit and they have taken full advantage of all Boston has to offer. But more importantly, they have added a level of energy and excitement to the meeting that is palpable. As the world’s only global airport organization, ACI is a unique forum. There are many reasons to be proud of being a part of the airport industry, but seeing the talent and dedication of airport leaders from every corner of the worked, one feels especially proud, and hopeful for the future of the air transportation industry

Tomorrow, we will conclude with sessions on worldwide trends in safety and security. We will also have our honors lunch where we will present our environmental awards to the airports in Seattle, Minneapolis and Boston; our public relations award to Edmonton and our most prestigious individual award, the William Downes Award, to the late Wally Burg. Wally was the longtime airport director in Tucson, Arizona; but more importantly was one of the visionaries who really put this worldwide airport organization and industry on the map. This entire event, in a way, is a fitting tribute to his vision and dedication

We will end the night at the John F. Kennedy Library and Museum, which is not only a beautiful place set on the water here in Boston, but is full of meaning for our international visitors, many of whom were inspired by President Kennedy while young people in their own countries

Still haven’t missed a pitch, Red Sox up, survived a bases loaded situation in the top of the 7th….

Back to the Future

We just finished the opening session of the ACI World/North America annual conference and exhibition. After the obligatory speeches from the leaders of the two organizations and our hosts, we heard a keynote speech by Dr. Alfred Kahn.

Dr. Kahn, as many know, was chair of the U.S. Civil Aeronautics Board when airline deregulation was enacted into law, 30 years ago this month.  He talked about deregulation, what it has meant, and what we might think about as we move into the future.

Oh, by the way, Dr. Kahn is 91.

He had the room, filled with 1,200 airport leaders from around the world, in the palm of his hand. He talked about the fact that he turned the job down when first offered by President Carter, but finally took the post. What he accomplished was historic; he changed aviation around the world in a way that few have ever done, in any industry.

While some of the speech was focused on economics, landing charges and so forth, perhaps the most interesting part (to me anyway) was his discussion of the fact that energy prices back then had skyrocketed from $3 a barrel to $11 and the fact that congestion and capacity were then issues very much on the mind of policy makers and industry leaders alike.

This blog has addressed these facts before. Many of the problems and challenges facing the industry are nothing new. The fear that the industry will not recover is also nothing new. But I am convinced that our best days remain ahead, that we will regain our footing, that traffic will resume its upwards long term trend and that airports must be well-positioned when that happens.  Anyone attending this global meeting would come away impressed and optimistic for the industry’s future — in all four corners of the earth.

Greetings from Boston

I’m writing this from Boston, Massachusetts where ACI-North America is holdingGreg Principato - ACI-NA President its annual conference and exhibition. This year, we are very proud to be holding our meeting along with ACI World. We have well over 2,000 attendees from 49 countries and every continent (ok, no penguins, so Antarctica is not represented).  We also have nearly 300 exhibit booths at which companies and organizations from around the world are displaying the latest technologies, concessions concepts, design ideas and other goods and services.

I like to say that the exhibit hall at our regular annual meeting is like the state fair of the airport industry. For this meeting with its international flair, I suppose it is like the UN.

Fuel prices are on everyone’s mind. No matter whether we are talking about environment, finance, technology, or air service, fuel prices and the impact they have had on airline operations, are never far from the discussion. This is true no matter where in the world one lives.

The current U.S. financial crisis has also been brought up in many of our meetings and in hallway conversations. I was talking to someone who oversees the airport system in a large African country. A few months ago they entered into an insurance contract with AIG. Most Americans had no idea what AIG was a few months ago and now we all know. We also now know that its problems have a ripple effect far beyond our shores.

Over the next few days we will be examining issues such as environment, congestion, information technology, security, safety and airline consolidation and economics. Speakers come from all over the world; this might be the most high powered group of presenters I have seen.

One additional point of interest. Airports from the developing world benefit in a special way from the chance to interact with, and learn from, their international colleagues. The problem is that many cannot afford to come to a place like Boston for a meeting like this.

The airports in Montreal, Atlanta and Jacksonville stepped into the breach and through their sponsorship we were able to bring five airport leaders from Africa to Boston who might not other wise have been able to come. A global industry at its best.

Over the next few days I will continue to write about the goings on in Boston. I even have time for a trip to Fenway Park!  And at the end of the meeting I will visit the graves of John and John Quincy Adams, a presidential two-fer getting me closer to my goal of visiting all presidential grave sites.

Seven Years . . .

I am writing this on September 10.  Seven years ago tonight, I was the president-elect Greg Principato - ACI-NA Presidentof the T.C. Williams High School PTA in Alexandria, Va., and helped preside over a ceremony honoring top students at the school.  T.C. Williams is the school made famous by the movie “Remember the Titans” so there was already a lot of community pride.  These days, T.C. Williams is most characterized by the fact that students from more than 80 countries attend school there.  As I stood on the stage that night, I recall shaking hands with several hundred students, many of them dressed in garb from their native lands.  It was an awesome experience, showing what is possible when the world is brought closer together.

Just 12 hours after that ceremony, those same students were able to actually hear the explosion at the Pentagon, as well as the later roar of fighter jets that had been summoned to help.  Everything was now different.

No industry was affected quite the way aviation was.  The industry was actually shut down for several days as government and the private sector rushed to figure out how it came to be that airplanes full of passengers had been turned into guided missiles; and how best to ensure it could not happen again.  It is hard to recall now, but there was a lot of uncertainty out there on the 12th and the days immediately after; were there other hijackers ready to strike, would there be another wave of attacks in some other form?  These uncertainties intensified during the anthrax attacks just a few weeks later.

In the weeks and months to follow, the federal government changed the whole approach to securing the aviation system.  The first steps were strong ones; there was no time for a risk assessment approach.  We had to move quickly, and the American people, indeed the world, had to be assured that the system would be safe.

In the years since, the government and the industry have modified the system, better able to assess and plan for risks.  The initial law enforcement mentality has given way to an approach focused on securing the system while ensuring that its basic purpose — the transport of people and goods — could be accomplished.  It is still not perfect.  The system remains too labor intensive and not technology intensive enough.  There is still more to be done to create a system that assesses and manages risk and allocates resources accordingly.

But the fact remains that much progress has been made.  Kip Hawley, the Assistant Secretary of DHS in charge of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), has done a remarkable job in helping move us in the right direction.  One of the most important has been to realize that what works at one airport may not necessarily work at another, and that a truly secure system has to include input from the airport staff involved.  In an important way, this also adds to the element of uncertainty that underlies the system, for if it is too predictable the terrorists have a better chance to figure out how to beat it.

Security is always a top priority with airport directors.  I’d say that in my time here at least 75 percent of all the conversations I’ve had with directors have included some mention of security.  There are a lot of good ideas in the airport community and today’s TSA has been much more open to them.  In a few months there will be a new administration and new leadership at TSA.  I hope that those new leaders will be able to build on what has been accomplished over these past seven years:  work closely with the airport community, move forward with new technologies (these new laptop bags, for example, as well as inline baggage systems), and commit to a risk management approach that keeps us safe and allows the aviation system to perform its basic function.

Back to those kids at T.C. Williams.  Many of those who were high school freshmen on September 11, 2001 are now seniors in college.  The world they will live and work in is different than that which existed when they started high school.  If we make the right decisions, it can be a world that is more secure than seemed possible seven years ago, but just as rich in global possibilities.

Airports were ready for Gustav, and Katrina

I write this the day after Hurricane Gustav came ashore along the Gulf Coast. Greg Principato - ACI-NA PresidentBy now, it appears as if there will be a fair amount of wind and water damage, but nothing like what we saw in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina three years ago, and nothing like what we all feared might happen this time. Of course, there is no rest for the weary as Hurricane Hanna bears down on the southeast and other tropical storms are forming in the Atlantic.

Much has been made of the fact that federal, state and local authorities were much better organized this time around. Indeed, they were, and this had much to do with the way things seem to have turned out.

The impression that is left, though, is that in 2005 no one really had their act together. That is not exactly correct. For the airport community was not only mobilized to respond to Katrina and to Gustav, but in each case put action and assistance plans into effect before the storms hit.

A few years ago, Patrick Graham of Savannah, Frank Miller of Pensacola and others formed the Southeast Airports Disaster Operations Group (SEADOG). SEADOG was ready with personnel and equipment; both of which were being deployed to airports in the path of Katrina even before that storm came ashore. In addition, my organization, ACI-North America, acted to facilitate assistance from airports around the U.S. and throughout Canada to the airports in New Orleans, Gulfport, Mobile and other Gulf Coast airports. Rick Vacar and the people at Houston’s airports went above and beyond the call of duty. ACI-NA got together with the American Association of Airport Executives (which also helped facilitate direct assistance) to form an employee assistance fund to help airport employees in the Gulf region, many of whom lost everything even as they worked tirelessly to keep their airports running. That fund raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to aid those families. It must also be said that the airline industry performed admirably as well.

In the end, the airport in New Orleans acted as a staging area, a military base, a hospital, a shelter and a morgue; performing needed services for its community. All of that was made possible by the leadership and staff down there, as well as by the fact that the entire airport community in the United States and Canada came together to help. TSA and other federal agencies worked closely with the airport to keep things running.

There were not many success stories out of Katrina, but this was one. Our then-vice chairman Steve Grossman, airport director in Oakland, said at the time that he had never been prouder to be a part of the airport community. I still recall introducing the New Orleans airport director, Roy Williams, to 1,300 attendees at our annual conference which took place three weeks after Katrina. It was the first time he’d been away from the airport. The response was emotional.

Everyone in the airport community is happy that no such efforts were required this time. But it is important for the public to know that airports were and are ready to meet the challenge, and that airports have proven this in the past. I often say that airports are the public face of aviation in their communities. During Katrina, they were so much more.