I just returned from Singapore, where I attended the ACI Asia Pacific annual conference. My colleague, Patti Chau, does a great job there as Regional Director and they put on a great conference. I was honored to have been asked to moderate the final panel of the meeting, the CEO Forum. The CEOs of San Diego, Sydney, Athens and Singapore airports were on the panel, along with Angela Gittens, Director General of ACI World.
Singapore is a terrific place to visit. It still maintains a certain influence from the British colonial period but is also unmistakably Asian. There are so many new and exciting things going on there, but the history of the place, and its many cultures, are found everywhere you look. It is famous for its street food, and I can tell you that it is wonderful. We took a couple of boat rides on the river, one at night and one during the day. I was amazed at how different the city looked on the two rides, and how beautiful it was each time. From tea at the Raffles Hotel to lunch on the roof of the Marina Bay Sands; from roaming the Botanical Gardens to touring Chinatown, I highly recommend a trip to Singapore.
As for the conference, a real highlight was the keynote speech by Philip Chen, former CEO of Cathay Pacific Airlines. His speech was full of substance and inspiration, made even more remarkable by the fact that a previous speaker had, by accident, removed his prepared remarks from the podium. Chen talked about the pace of change, and the role of aviation. He talked about how people throughout the region were planning for the dynamic future to come, and those who do not are doomed to fail. This brought to mind the speech I gave recently in Denver, where I pointed out that U.S. airlines and the U.S. government seem content to ride with what we have and are neglecting this competitive challenge. I asked him about this, which led to a morning of engaging conversation. He even told a William Henry Harrison joke. Anyone who can joke about our shortest serving president has the admiration of this presidential history geek. But even more, his message is one we ignore at our peril, and we in the United States are right in the middle of doing so.
Indeed, this was confirmed throughout the days I spent in Singapore. I heard the same message over and over again. The global aviation market is growing, it is a global industry and those who ignore that are writing a dim future for themselves. Some who heard, or heard about, the Denver speech came up to me to make this comment.
It may make some feel good to think that the U.S. is a “mature” aviation market so we shouldn’t invest in anything new. But as I’ve said before, we risk making the same mistake steel and auto makers made a half century ago, mistakes which led them to a generation of protectionism as their only means of survival. I do not want to see such a future for U.S. aviation. Right now, considering the path we are on, I am not optimistic.