Scenes from Schiphol

Met Monday with Ad Rutten, who is in charge of Amsterdam Schipol Airport. He previously worked for KLM in a very high profile position, so he has seen things from both sides.

His airport has been in the crosshairs of two of the biggest aviation stories of the year. The underwear bomber flew from here to the United States. After that, he told me all sorts of US officials descended upon him. They now have body scanning machines all over the airpoprt; US-bound passengers go through them so that will be us on Tuesday. They present the image of the passenger differently here; it is essentially a generic human form. I’ll let you know how it goes.

The front entrance to Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport.

The volcanic ash cloud also caused a great deal of difficulty here. There were 4500 passengers stuck here when the airspace closed, 1600 of them never left the airport for several days. The airport provided them deoderant, clean underwear and other assistance. Quite a story.

One other observation. I traveled between the airport and downtown several times this past week or so. The train station is at the airport and connections are basically seamless. One thing folks in many parts of the world have gotten right that we have not in the US is the links between air transport and other forms. That requires us as a nation to decide this is all about the transportation business, getting people from their front door to the front door of their destination. We have not made that leap; we tend to look at the modes as separate universes.

I AMsterdam

Greetings from Amsterdam! Arrived here from Casablanca Friday night; we’ve had two wonderful days here. Tomorrow I will meet with the chairman of ACI Europe, Ad Rutten. Ad runs Schipol Airport and has done a tremendous job these past six months addressing direct fallout from two very difficult events these past six months:  the Christmas bombing attempt and the volcanic eruption. More on all that tomorrow.

The famous "I amsterdam" letters at the Museumplein.

We’ve never been to Amsterdam before and it is rapidly becoming a favorite. We’ve ridden throughout much of the canal system, stood in the room in which Anne Frank hid from the Nazis for several years, seen Rembrandt‘s works including “Night Watch,” Vermeer‘s unbelievable rendering of the “The Milkmaid,” several hundred Van Gogh paintings, and taken the Heineken Experience tour. We’ve eaten great traditional Dutch food, seen beautiful architecture and gorgeous flowers. And we’ve only scratched the surface.

Amsterdam’s “Brouwerij ‘t Ij” brewery, which stands beside an enormous, classic Dutch windmill.

One of the neat things about this place is that it attracts people from all over the world. We’ve ridden boats with people from Bosnia, Canada, Australia and New Jersey. We attended mass today in a beautiful little church with as diverse a congregation as you would ever see (including a kid in a Dodgers t-shirt).

Probably the only other place I see such diversity is back home (students from more than 80 countries attend the high school my kids went to, TC Williams in Alexandria). Maybe that’s another reason I like this place so much and feel so comfortable here.

Thoughts From Marrakech

Just completed an excellent meeting in Marrakech with my colleagues (some by phone). We are committed to working together to improve airport performance and customer service around the world and we have more specific ideas on how to do so. We have also strengthened our ability to serve as the officially accredited voice of airports in important international organizations.

While in Marrakech we had the chance to see some of the city. We visited the famous souk, where you can buy almost anything. We saw story tellers, snake charmers and others. Saw a fellow carve a small charm out of a block of wood, with his feet!

Also saw the hotel Winston Churchill used to stay in when he came to Marrakech to paint and the gardens that include a monument to Yves St. Laurent, who had a house in Marrakech.

Greg and Angela Gittens, ACI Director General, and Ali Tounsi, General Secretary of ACI Africa

Rode back to Casablanca by car yesterday with Ali Tounsi (ACI Africa). It is incredible to see the different topography as you go from the desert to the more lush coastal area and finally to the bustling city of Casablanca.

Like everywhere, Morocco has lots of American influences:  McDonalds, KFC, Pizza Hut, Yankees caps, and even a guy at the Marrakech souk in a John Whetteland Texas Rangers jersey T-shirt. I also just saw a Washington Nationals cap! Strasburg-mania even extends to Casablanca!

One thing occurred to me while going through immigration in both Amsterdam and, especially, Casablanca, immigration can be an intimidating experience, even for a native citizen. For a non-citizen, it is fraught with uncertainty. We need to do a better job in the process of welcoming foreign visitors to our shores, and we shouldn’t get too upset if the process overseas bothers us until we get our own act together.

A final note: we dropped Angela Gittens, Director General of ACI World, at the Marrakech Airport yesterday before driving back to Casablanca. Right before leaving I saw the new Sex and the City movie. While much of it was set in Abu Dhabi, actual filming occurred in Morocco. The scene in the movie where they arrive at the airport was actually shot, it appears, in front of the Marrakech airport.

Aboard the Marrakech Express . . .

…with apologies to Crosby, Stills and Nash…this is being written on the train from Casablanca to Marrakech. I’m on the way to a meeting with my ACI regional director colleagues in Marrakech hosted by Ali Tounsi, my colleague who serves as Regional Secretary for ACI-Africa. Angela Gittens, Director General of ACI World has instituted these twice yearly meetings which have gone a long way toward strengthening the global voice of airports. 

Wherever I go in the world, I am always struck by the role airports play in promoting their communities and, most importantly, serving their passengers. In fact, I was in Amsterdam yesterday; they gave passengers deodorant and clean underwear when so many were stuck in the airport during the volcanic ash event. 

I have always been impressed with the great strides being made by airports throughout Africa and promoting that will be a theme of our meeting. 

Casablanca was great fun; we had a terrific guide who showed us a great deal. You will see a picture attached to this article of the world’s fifth largest mosque, King Hassan II Mosque, which is located in Casablanca right on the ocean. Just a beautiful site. Casablanca has a reputation as just a big city, but we found a great deal of beauty there.

Now, feeling a little Bogart-like after my quick visit to Casablanca, it is on to Marrakech on the Marrakech Express…

My MIT Message – Airlines are Just a Tube with Wings

I went up to Boston last week to speak to a class at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). It was an executive education class as part of their aviation program. Others on the program, in addition to a series of impressive academic and industry folks, included FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt, former Air Canada CEO Montie Brewer and president of the pilots union at Delta, Capt. Lee Moak. In fact, the four of us formed a panel at the end of the day; after we had each given our lectures. 

I must admit I was a little intimidated. Not because of the audience or the other speakers; but because it was at MIT!  Even my mom was impressed when I told her (and Randy admitted his would have been too). But I got my adrenaline under control and had a lot of fun. 

My main point was this:  airline deregulation in 1978 was passed with the passenger in mind. In 1978 only one-quarter of all city pair routes were flown by two or more carriers. There was very little competition and prices were high, beyond the reach of many middle class families. One of the leaders in the Senate in the fight for deregulation was Sen. Ted Kennedy, to the liberals it was a pro-consumer issue (one of his top aides on that bill was Stephen Breyer, now a Justice on the US Supreme Court). It was thought that deregulating airlines economically would benefit passengers. Airports were an after-thought; just a facility. 

In terms of price and competition that has happened, no doubt it.  Much to the consternation of airlines, who are looking for ways to increase the price through the use of fees and who are trying to reduce competition by attempting to impede airports wanting to build projects and promote air service. 

But in terms of taking care of the passenger, it is airports that have filled a breach left by the airlines. When there are delays and cancellations, it is airports that step up to meet passengers needs. During the volcanic ash event earlier this year, airports stepped up to provide places to rest, food, water; even showers and clean underwear. While airlines are looking to find new fees to charge (the latest:  “peak” travel fees, meaning any summer day, as well as a fee to move up in line) airports were stepping to the plate to meet passenger needs. 

I said earlier that years ago, airports were just seen as facilities (“a ceiling, 4 walls and some doors” as one airline CEO once said to me), while airlines were the drivers in customer service. Today, it is the reverse, airlines just provide the facility (the tube with wings) and it is airports who care for the passenger.

Mood better this year at JumpStart

Virgin America's CEO David Cush was the keynote speaker at the conference. By the way, Virgin America is one airline that supports the PFC ceiling hike that ACI-NA has been advocating.

I’m in San Diego at our annual Marketing and Communications conference. This meeting is combined with our annual JumpStart event — a “speed dating” type event where airports and airlines get together for a rapid-fire set of meetings that can result in new leads for air service. 

We have about 400 people here. There are 26 airlines at Jump Start at 39 booths enabling 920 pre-scheduled meetings between airports and airlines. And, that doesn’t count a large number of other meetings between airlines and airports occurring in the lobby and hallways, in restaurants and other places nearby. 

I can say the overall mood and attitude here is terrific; a marked contrast with the past two years when there were fewer meetings and greater economic pressure. No one thinks we are out of the economic woods yet. But there is a hope that we have turned the corner.

Bisignani: Infrastructure Must be Reshaped

Now we have it straight from the source:  “infrastructure must be reshaped around the needs of airlines…” says Giovanni Bisignani, Director General of IATA.

In other words:  the air transportation system exists to serve the needs of airlines. It is not for shippers or travelers. And that’s from the man who leads the organization representing the world’s airlines.

So, airports are just suppliers for airlines. For that matter, communities are just suppliers for airlines. For that matter, travelers are just suppliers for airlines. Supplying their bodies and breath and every penny that can possibly be sucked out of their wallets to the airlines.

This is a load of crap. But it is clearly the view of the world’s airlines as represented by the leader of their global organization.

Giovanni is an energetic leader of his organization and has a lot of interesting things to say on various issues. But his insistence (widely shared in the airline industry) that air transportation exists to supply revenue for airlines, has nothing to do with the passenger or the shipper. It has never been stated as clearly as Giovanni did today.