Small Airports and Environment Conference

Earlier this week I was in Cincinnati, Ohio attending our joint Small Airports and Environment conferences.

The men and women who run North America’s smaller airports are a diverse lot. Some are on their way to senior management at large airports, but increasingly many of them make their careers at smaller facilities. There are many reasons for this; a big reason being that running a smaller facility, with much smaller staff, is a way for these airport professionals to remain directly engaged in all aspects of airport operations. Indeed, we ran sessions on issues such as environment, security, safety, concessions management and social media. These topics are all covered at some of our specialty conferences but often the smaller airports can’t send (or don’t have) staff to all these other events. That is why we provide this program specially geared to smaller airports.

During my first several years in this job, I spent a lot of time dealing with environmental issues. For various reasons, including a change in the national political climate (not the climate change pun), I spend much less time on them now (in contrast to my counterpart at ACI Europe, where environmental concerns including climate change, remain at the top of the list).  But that does not mean they are less important. Indeed, nothing can slow airport development faster than environmental concerns, which is a reason our industry has been so proactive on environmental issues. It is also worth noting that the U.S. EPA is considering several initiatives that could drastically increase the cost of airport development and operations with no real environmental impact. We have worked, and are working hard to shape the outcome of that work and I will have more to say in the months ahead.

I did hear a very interesting anecdote yesterday; there have actually been emergency calls placed by people who have seen planes flying overhead but couldn’t hear them and assumed the engines were out. Aircraft noise remains a tough political issue, in many ways made tougher by the advances in technology that have reduced real noise but not perceived noise.

Tomb of William Henry Harrison

Before leaving Cincinnati, I joined my brother (who lives in the area) for a trip to the grave site of William Henry Harrison, our 9th president and the 28th presidential grave site I’ve visited. He was president for only one month, having caught pneumonia while delivering the longest inaugural speech in history (2 1/2 hours). Yes, he almost literally talked himself to death!

Cleveland: Marketing & Communications Conference

I spent much of the week in Cleveland attending our annual Marketing and Communications conference and our Jump Start air service development event.

View from my seat- Indians game, Progressive Field

First a couple of words about Cleveland:  A more gracious host would be impossible to find. Ricky Smith, the airport director, and Todd Payne, the Marketing honcho for the airport and their people couldn’t do enough. They were just great. We had a wonderful event at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (recommended) and Todd took me to see a game at Progressive Field, the 34th major league park I’ve visited (21st current park.) The Indians won and the ballpark was fantastic. We even got on the Jumbotron. If that wasn’t enough, Cleveland contains the gravesite of James Garfield, our 20th president (and the 27th gravesite I’ve visited.) His monument is the most ornate and nicest of all I  have visited so far.

President Garfield Monument and Burial Site

I’d only been to Cleveland once before, 20 years ago for a Democratic Leadership Council event where Bill Clinton delivered a speech that helped propel him to the nomination.  I’ve seen such change since the last time I was here; there is a lot of energy in this underrated city.

I’ve always believed marketing is one of the undervalued skills in any organization. Our Marketing and Communications Committee is among our most active and they put on a great conference. We are in a time when airports, individually and as a group, need to re-assess how we market our message and this meeting was full of great ideas. As you might expect, customer service and social media were two major elements of the discussion.

At lunch on Wednesday we presented our highest individual award for marketing excellence, the Ted Bushelman Award, to Tara Hamilton who does such a great job for the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority. I’ve known Tara since my days in Virginia state government and she does a great job.

We also had a presentation by wine expert Leslie Sbrocco. Leslie was wetting our appetites for the 2012 version of this meeting which will be held in Sacramento, right near California wine country. Leslie has two wine and food shows on PBS,  is a contributor on the Today Show and she really entertained us while educating us on wines.

The Jump Start event is sort of like speed dating between airports and airlines and this year we had more than a thousand meetings scheduled over a day and a half.  These meetings do sometimes lead to service, in case you were wondering; Oakland announced new Spirit Airlines service that grew directly out of discussions at last year’s Jump Start. Airports take their air service development responsibilities most seriously and this event offers a prime opportunity for airports and airlines to get together. Indeed, some of the most productive conversations happen in the hallway or the surrounding food and beverage establishments. This year a record number of meetings were scheduled.

A final unrelated note:  Clarence Clemons died earlier this week. He played the saxophone in Bruce Springsteen’s E Street band and his sound can be heard through much of Springsteen’s music. That music has formed the sound track for many key parts of my life. One of my great college memories is being on the quad on a nice day with Springsteen blaring out someone’s window. Clarence’s sax was a big part of that. Clarence Clemons, for playing so memorably on the sound track of my life, RIP.

ACI Board Meetings and Members

I’m writing from the ACI Europe annual conference in Lisbon.

We had two days of board-related meetings at which a number of critical decisions were made including one regarding our effort to attain a better framework for financing airport infrastructure. As I’ve said in several speeches, articles, and interviews, the current model is broken and the government (with the support of the airlines) is actually blocking investment in infrastructure. We need to change this.

We also had a joint meeting with the ACI Europe board. We have this joint meeting every year. This year, it was our turn to cross the Atlantic. There are very similar economic pressures on both sides of the Atlantic and we explored those. The business and governance models at most European airports are very different than in North America (especially the U.S.), so it is interesting to compare approaches. Much like the National Football League, the airport industry is one where good ideas are on display and others feel free to learn from (steal) them.

We also discussed security topics- especially the European proposal to allow transport of liquids and gels- even though the technology does not exist to adequately screen them. TSA was very concerned about that and, in the end, the European authorities had to bow to reality and back away. They are now plowing ahead on a new deadline of 2013, which may be equally unrealistic.

When I travel the world to these meetings, I am always struck and assured by the high quality of people who run these airports. This year, ACI Europe has a change in board leadership. Ad Rutten from Amsterdam, a highly capable and energetic executive whose excellent work during last year’s volcanic ash crisis was well recognized, is leaving the chairmanship. He is replaced by Declan Collier from Dublin, equally smart and energetic. Declan has an excellent financial mind, is a very good communicator, and will do an effective job pushing the interests of European airports and their passengers

Olivier Jankovec is my counterpart at ACI Europe. Although young, he has wide and deep experience in aviation and is a great Director General for ACI Europe. He has had more than his share of crises to deal with,  including the economic downturn, two ash clouds, conflicts in North Africa,  and the liquids and gels controversy  among other things. He has a tough job and they are lucky to have him.

It was also fun to run into Max Moore-Wilton, chair of the Sydney Australia airport and chair of  ACI World. The ACI World board has had great leadership these past four years with Max and Jim Cherry from Montreal, who is here, and the results show. My friend Angela Gittens, Director General of ACI World is also here. I have written about her before and my respect for her is as high as can be. Airports global efforts are well led.

Sometimes when you travel, there is a lot of down time spent in the hotel. On this trip, that has not been the case. Between the opportunities to tour earlier in our trip and the meetings these past few days, there has been absolutely no down time. It has been an exhausting, challenging, memorable, and important week. If you ever get a chance, go to Portugal!!

ACI-Europe Annual Conference in Portugal

When I worked in the Virginia Governor’s Office, one of my responsibilities dealt with trade policy matters. I only went on one overseas mission which was organized through the National Governors Association.  Gov. Baliles led seven missions, which led to a sharp increase in foreign trade and investment (as did our investment in transportation infrastructure at home, by the way.)

Anyway, I know a lot of folks think those trips are just junkets. But if you went with Gov. Baliles you were given briefing materials on the countries you were visiting and you were expected to actually learn from it. (He absorbed all the information and would engage participants in conversation; he’d quickly find out who was serious).  When you were there you were expected to go to museums and participate in local events. That way, you learned something about how a place actually functions, the cultures and customs and so forth.  I’ve always tried to do that wherever I’ve gone and Portugal (where I am now, sitting on a bench looking at the ocean, while I write this) is no exception.

Our hotel is just 2 blocks from the beach and it is tempting to just sit there for a few days and do nothing. But, I couldn’t do that.

The hotel is in Estoril which is also where the ACI Europe conference is being held. The next town over is called Cascais, and it really is a beautiful place. Full of shops and restaurants, it is also a place where a number of folks who work in Lisbon reside. A train line links Cascais at one end with Lisbon at the other. Trains run every 20 minutes and the line is well used. I guess you might say that Cascais is to Lisbon as Long Island is to New York City or Loudon County, Virginia and Annapolis, Maryland are to Washington, D.C. (though it feels a little like Old Town Alexandria.)

On Saturday we hopped on a bus to Sintra (today I saw a number of reverse commuters get off the train from Lisbon and run to catch that same bus to their jobs.) Sintra is one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. There are lots of gardens and parks and a number of important palaces including Palacio de Pena and Quinta da Regaleira. The Palacio Nacional is also there, known by the cone-like structures protruding from the top (looks like an old Madonna costume.)

Sunday we went into Lisbon and took a city tour. Lisbon is a very nice place and we enjoyed it very much. However, the real attraction was the Feast of St. Anthony.

St. Anthony is the patron saint of Lisbon and the anniversary of his death (June 13) is a national holiday. The holiday actually starts on June 12 and that’s when we were in the city. At the big Cathedral a large crowd gathered in front of a row of 12 Rolls Royces. Apparently, St. Anthony can provide good luck to married couples so a lot of people get married that day. On this day, 12 couples got married at the Cathedral. When the ceremony was over, they drove off in cars escorted by police and marching bands. Once they left, the guy we were standing next to said, “Now the party and drinking starts!” 

Before we went off to do that, we went into the Cathedral and also into the smaller church nearby that is dedicated to St. Anthony.  Then made our way to the main boulevard and watched the parade. There are a number of different neighborhoods in Lisbon and each puts together a group show and they perform it in the parade. There is a lot of energy, and the neighborhoods go all out. We made friends with a local woman who said that with Portugal’s economic problems, people were looking to have an extra good time this year.

Anyone who has ever attended or marched in a July 4 parade knows that these national day celebrations really help reveal the soul of a nation. I remember attending one of the May Day parades in Moscow in 1973, complete with all the military hardware, including big missiles. To paraphrase President George W. Bush, I looked the Soviets in the eye that day and saw their (chilling) soul.

In 1993 I was in Budapest with Gov. Baliles and we ended up, by accident, marching in the parade marking their 145th anniversary of independence (March 15.)  All of these, as with the St. Anthony festivities here in Portugal, give you a real sense of the place.

Later today we have the ACI-NA executive committee meeting and tomorrow, our board meeting, along with a joint meeting with the ACI Europe board. These joint meetings are useful and important because so many of the issues are global in nature. More on that next time.

Airlines: They Make The Darndest Claims

I’ve been mostly quiet about airlines’ fees.  Yes, I have said that we need to address the policy questions raised by airlines’ increased reliance on them:  less money in the aviation trust fund and longer security lines caused by people checking fewer bags.  But, I’ve said that we have a de-regulated industry, that if the airlines want to unbundle fares and charge these fees, and people are willing to pay them, then it is their right to do so.

But, two recent developments have gotten under my skin:

First, the news that airlines made $21 billion in various fees last year.  Fine.  But then they argue that their average fares remain “low” and that they don’t have “pricing power,” and they are hurting financially and we can’t build any infrastructure because the real purpose of air transportation is airline profits (OK, I made that last one up, sort of, but what they say adds up to exactly what I said).

These are arguments they use against airports looking for just a little bit of economic freedom to charge their own user fee to build infrastructure (if you look at airline executive pay packages and bonus programs you can get an idea where many of those airline fee dollars are going; airports can’t do that — all of our fees go into infrastructure and services).  Airlines like to say that the average ticket is something just over $300 (I wish I could find a ticket that cheap, I fly a lot and have paid that little only once this year).  But then they collect all these fees, billions worth.  They are not being honest.  The average fare is not something just over $300; it is much more when you add the fees in.

Again, I have defended their right to price their products that way, all I ask is a little honesty on their part.

Then, I have started to hear airlines argue that the fees they charge are “voluntary” whereas an airport user fee is not.  Horsepoop!  Is bringing a bag on a vacation “voluntary?”  Is wanting to have an assigned seat “voluntary?”

How about change fees?  If your kid gets sick, is that “voluntary.”  When my father in law passed away two years ago and I was on a business trip and had to change my flight I couldn’t get the change fee waived because I didn’t know the phone number of the hospital he was lying in!!  Is that “voluntary?????”  (Were they really going to call to find out if he was going to die???)

Airports have used the small user fee they can charge to build runways and taxiways (these are not voluntary, unless the laws of physics are altered they are needed).  These fees have been used to build terminal facilities to attract new and competitive service.  Is this voluntary?  I guess it depends, if you are a legacy airline that hates competition (but you say you love free enterprise) then maybe it is.  But, for passengers?  Not so much.  Airport fees have been used to improve safety and security and mitigate environmental impacts.  Are these voluntary?  I’d like to see you make that argument.

A CEO of General Motors once said “what is good for General Motors is good for the United States of America.”  Airlines seem to believe what is good for the airlines is the sum total of what is good for air travelers.  These are the folks who treated air travelers so poorly for so long they basically dared the government to force them to provide water and bathrooms for passengers during delays.  And, then they complained when the government followed through and issued a rule making them do just that.

I have never met an airport leader who wanted an airline to do poorly financially or, worse still, fold.  I never met an airport leader who wanted to lose air service.  We are all in this together.  Most airline executives I have known feel the same way.  But when they get together, they say, as Art Linkletter once said about kids, the darndest things!