Fresh From the Airport Exchange Conference in Abu Dhabi

I’ve just returned from a quick two days in Abu Dhabi, attending and speaking at, the Airport Exchange Conference, organized by both ACI Europe and ACI Asia Pacific.  It is an excellent event, with about 1200 people in attendance it is probably the third largest gathering of airport professionals in the world, after the ACI-NA and AAAE annual conferences.  Airport Exchange combines a half dozen separate meetings into one event, I was there to speak at the Security session.

More than most such meetings, it was great to see so many people from the entire airport world, all in one place.  One such person is Jim Bennett, former CEO of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority who is now ABU Dhabi airport’s CEO.  Abu Dhabi has great ambitions for it’s airport as a global hub and in Jim they have the right person to make that happen.

Also had a chance to spend almost a half hour with John Pistole, TSA Administrator. It is kind of funny to go 6,000 miles to meet with someone who works just about 5 miles from my office but it was a good chance to get together and discuss a number of outstanding issues and we took advantage. I am particularly hopeful about his Risk Based Security initiative; that is what he spoke to the conference about and I also focused on it during my remarks.

A very interesting, humbling session was one moderated by ACI Europe Chair Declan Collier on disaster recovery.  The CEO from Narita was there and talked about how Japan recovered from the earthquake and tsunami.  He reminded everyone that the fear from the result of the nuclear plant disaster was just as important.  Brussels airport was there talking about responding to heavy snows and the ash cloud crisis, and the head of CANSO, the equivalent of ACI World for air navigation services providers, gave a global perspective on dealing with disasters and other large events.

As I had to get back for meetings in Washington, the trip was shorter than I would have liked, four nights away from home, two spent sleeping on planes and two at the hotel.  I can tell you right now, my new favorite amenity is a shower in an airport lounge.  I transited in Frankfurt on both ends and had pretty long layovers.  After hitting the showers I felt like a new man!

You can’t go to Abu Dhabi, though, without remarking about the place itself.  Several pictures are included in this post.  The beautiful Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque is the largest

Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque

in the world that is not located in Saudi Arabia.  It has 82 domes and is in a great setting.  On my last night, as I was being driven  back from the gala dinner to prepare to catch my flight I got to witness an amazing light show emanating from the Mosque.  The show was in honor of the upcoming (Dec 2) UAE National Day, celebrating the 40th anniversary of the founding of the country.

Display in the lobby of Emirates Palace hotel honoring UAE National Day

I have written previously about how I like to be in a country when it celebrates a big day of national significance and I have been lucky enough to do this many times in several countries.  It gives you a sense of the place, from May Day in Soviet Moscow to Hungarian Independence Day in Budapest (when I marched  in the parade)  to St. Anthonys Day in Lisbon this last summer, I have found that the national personality comes out at such times.  There were plenty of signs, flags and decorations everywhere and it seemed to be much on the minds of everyone.  I’m glad I could be there at this time and only regret that I could stay longer.

Yes, a gold vending machine in the Emirates Palace hotel.

Abu Dhabi is certainly an “over the top” kind of place, though much less so than Dubai.  Still, Abu Dhabi is the place where the planned UAE extensions of the Louvre, Guggenheim and Cleveland Clinic will be based.  There is one very small island where a development is going up, a couple of dozen towers.  As many people will live in those towers as live in all of Iceland!

Yes, I did see a Gold vending machine.  It was located in the Emirates Palace hotel.  Opulent doesn’t begin to describe this place.  No, I didn’t stay there (though my son does when he goes to Abu Dhabi on business, I have a new admiration for him!).  The gala dinner was held there and though I had to leave early to catch my plane I could get a good enough feel of the place.  It is amazing, huge, beautiful, gracious and over the top all at the same time.  I hope the pictures give you a little sense of the place.

The Emirates Palace Hotel

Artwork honoring the Arab Spring

You are reminded regularly that you are “not in Kansas anymore” when you visit a place like Abu Dhabi.  Constant references to the visionary founder and current visionary president; we don’t even talk about George Washington that way.  Heck, we even got this during the recorded tour as part of one of those Big Bus city tours (I try to take one of them whenever I am in a new city and don’t have much time, or simply to become oriented).

All the construction cranes, only a small fraction of what I saw in Dubai two years ago, but a lot of them. The flyover on Monday afternoon, right over downtown Abu Dhabi.  Four fighters doing a series of maneuvers, exciting, exhilarating and chilling at the same time.  I’m sure they were practicing for National Day activities, but right over downtown?  Nothing the FAA or Pentagon would ever go for, but no one is going to tell the leaders there they can’t have this kind of show.

On the ceiling of hotel rooms is a plaque that points the way to Mecca for prayers.

It is hard to describe places like Abu Dhabi and Dubai.  It would be difficult to imagine living there, but I have enjoyed visiting.  If you behave and use some common sense, there is a sense of freedom.  If you step a bit out of line you might quickly see another side of the place.  It is a place of great energy, and a place where many people just don’t seem to want to move very fast.  So many contradictions.  Fascinating.

If you get a chance, go.

It’s Time to Tell Our Story

Last week, in the run up to Thanksgiving, I did about a dozen radio interviews around the country.  The main subject of those interviews had to do with travel tips, the interviewers wanted their audience to hear what they needed to do to have a good travel experience over the holidays.

It gave me a good chance to talk about all the great things airports are doing to care for their passengers and help them on their way.  Everything from putting on more staff and volunteers, to children’s play areas to free Internet to music programs.  It also gave me a chance to talk about how airports have stepped into the breach as airlines have withdrawn from more and more of the customer care functions they once performed.  Most of the time, the interviewer was surprised about all that airports do, so it was a great chance to educate them and their audiences.

The frustrating part was the feeling I got that the interviewers believed airports are responsible for things like lost bags and a bad security checkpoint experience.  I talked about how we work with our airline, and government, partners to make things better, but that the responsibility for these things lies elsewhere.  I did that in a subtle way of course, didn’t want to seem defensive.  But the lack of understanding out there of what airports do is really striking.  We have never done a good job of telling our story.  A lot of people have no idea we do many of the good things we do, and they blame airports for the missteps of others.  That is why we have embarked on a major public relations campaign.

We have a great story to tell.  But we need to start telling it!

Common Sense Needed

I just returned from St. Louis, which, as you know, suffered terrible damage when a tornado literally ripped through the airport and its terminal several months ago.  You can still see places where severe damage was caused and work remains to be done.  But overall, when you visit and walk through the airport to get your flight, it is almost as if nothing ever happened.  Airport leaders and staff are really terrific at dealing with such incidents, events that are not in any airport manager’s handbook.

I have also thought a lot about that topic in recent days in the wake of stories of the plane stuck on the tarmac at Hartford for several hours during a recent freak Fall snowstorm.

While news stories focus on what happened on the ground, the real story – and the real solution – lies with what happens in the air.  The seeds for the problems that day were sown long before the planes landed.  Hartford has 22 gates.  There were 28 plans diverted there that day, in addition to any planes already scheduled to be there.  In addition, the staff was working hard to keep the runway and taxiway clear of a foot of snow.  At the same time, there were other airports in the region that had much better weather and plenty of room and would have been able to handle some of those planes (7 of them declared fuel emergencies to land at Hartford, not much you can do about that).  As Ralph Kramden might have said, it was two pounds of bologna in a one pound bag.

The key here, as I wrote in USA Today not long after the incident, is for the FAA, airlines and airports to learn from this and work to come with a way to better handle and distribute these diversions.  Hartford had a plan, but it was overwhelmed by what unfolded.  There is much to learn and there are solutions.  What we do not need is folks trying to use the incident to gain attention, what we do need is people to roll up their sleeves and develop those common sense solutions.  We do not need press conferences, we need the work to be done, and we need better communication most of all.

It must have been awful to be on one of those planes that day.  It need not have happened.  We need to learn why it happened and put solutions in place.  We are committed to rolling up our sleeves and participating in that effort.

Reporting from Atlanta

I’m writing from the Carter Center in Atlanta. I’ll have more on that below.  My purpose in coming to Atlanta was to attend and participate in ACI-NA’s Concessions Conference.

Carter Presidential Center

I’ve had a lot to say about the federally-imposed, financial-straightjacket in which airports must operate these days. One area in which the straightjacket is less in evidence, however, is concessions and the results show.

All over North America, airports are continually refreshing their concessions offerings. They do this to keep up with changing tastes and technologies, to take account of the fact that people are spending more time in airports and, of course, to maximize revenue.

A keynote by Coke SVP Jerry Wilson was a high point. He not only talked about how to keep the Coke brand fresh, but also about the impact of changing trends throughout the world such as the need to conserve water resources and the emergence of women in so many countries. He gave us a lot to think about.

One interesting conversation was the changing nature of reading habits. Some airports that once housed a Borders store had a particular perspective. I joked with Marco from Vino Volo, the excellent wine company, that he was smart to go into a business that can’t be turned into a digital product.

Another highlight was the annual concessions awards show. The emcee this year was Robin Meade, from CNN’s Headline News. Her morning show is a must for many, and she made the 2011 edition of our awards the most memorable yet.  It was fun watching her work with the script but ad lib and interact with the audience. A real professional and a very nice lady (and, yes, quite beautiful too).

Nashville’s Rebecca Ramsey, myself and CNN’s Robin Meade.

Congratulations to all the winners, especially Darrell Watson of Louisville, Concessions Person of the Year and Nashville International Airport, winner of the Richard A. Griesbach Award of Excellence.

As I said at the top, I’m at the Carter Center, which has earned a reputation for the excellence of its work around the world. I very much enjoyed spending time in the museum (though the woman at the cash register was not terribly helpful). It is always interesting to see museums whose exhibits show events that occurred largely during my lifetime. Indeed, one photo showed President Carter with an old boss of mine, former Louisiana Sen. J. Bennett Johnston. And of course there was a whole exhibit about the Israel-Egypt peace treaty, the signing of which I was privileged to witness in person.

But the real highlight of my visit to Atlanta was the chance to spend two days with so many concessions professionals (more than 350). Those who work at airports and those who work for the many companies providing goods and services our passengers want, need and demand. It is an under-appreciated facet of the airport business, but growing in importance!

A Great Deal of Optimism Found in Marrakech

I’ve spent the last week attending and participating in the ACI World annual conference. This meeting was originally scheduled for Cairo, but for obvious reasons needed to be moved.  As a result, the meeting was held in the beautiful city of Marrakech, Morocco.  The annual meeting of ACI Africa was also held there.

Normally, these meetings are scheduled years in advance. I recall at last year’s conference in Bermuda, the folks from Egypt were happily looking forward to hosting us. By spring, it became obvious the meeting would need to be moved. The people in Marrakech stepped up in a big way and have delivered an event that has benefitted the membership, while also providing an enjoyable experience and a glimpse into Moroccan culture and history.

Marrakech, Morocco

Winston Churchill spent a great deal of time here and did a lot of painting here. One time he brought Franklin Roosevelt here and told him it was the most beautiful place on earth.

Although the global airport industry has faced great economic challenges, not to mention the continuing threat of terrorist attack, I found a great deal of optimism in Marrakech. I have always felt that airport CEOs are among the best business people I have ever met and everything I have seen here confirms that. The industry is recovering from the body blows it has absorbed these past few years and it’s leaders are now determined to move forward.

One of the nice things about this conference is that ACI World raises funds from a number of it’s members in the developed world and uses those funds to make it possible for airport managers from some developing countries to be here.  For example, I spoke the other night with the airport manager from Eritrea. He is a very smart and determined fellow, and clearly felt he was able to benefit by his exposure to colleagues around the world, and to their best ideas.

One of the most interesting conversations I had was one of the shorter ones. I had the opportunity to meet the new chair of the airport authority in Libya. I congratulated him on what his people have accomplished and offered whatever assistance we could provide.  He looked at me and said, “We are now free.” Quite something.

This conference marked the last meeting as ACI World chair for Max Moore-Wilton. Max is the chair of the Sydney airport. He is smart, determined and full of enthusiasm and passion for the industry. He has made a real difference as chair. He will be succeeded by Yiannis Paraschis of Athens, who has been vice chair the past two years and has also contributed a great deal to the organization and industry.  Rick Piccolo, a past chair of ACI-NA, will be World Vice Chair the next two years.  Rick has done so much for the world organization these past several years and will do a great job in the leadership.

My friend and colleague, Maggie Kwok, the regional director from ACI Asia-Pacific, announced her retirement. Maggie has one of the toughest jobs in the ACI family, with a territory that extends from the Arab Middle East across Asia and the Pacific all the way to Hawaii.  She has done a terrific job and I will miss her. She is being succeeded by Patti Chau, who has worked for ACI Asia-Pacific for many years and will be great in that role. I look forward to working with her for many years to come.

I have attended every ACI regional conference this year except for the Asia-Pacific meeting. I have found, uniformly, a renewed sense of energy and optimism. I am personally upbeat about the future, and I know that when the airport world convenes again next year in the wonderful city of Calgary (together with the ACI-NA meeting) this feeling will only be enhanced and a great many new achievements will be celebrated there.