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Event Review: ACI Africa/World Annual General Assembly


Joe Bates looks back at some of the highlights of the recent ACI Africa/World Annual General Assembly, Conference and Exhibition in Marrakech.

With many unable to attend an ACI World Annual General Assembly (WAGA) in person since the start of the global pandemic, anticipation was high ahead of this year’s event in Marrakech, and a series of lively panel discussions, informative presentations and a spectacular Gala Dinner ensured that it didn’t disappoint the more than 600 delegates and 50 exhibitors lucky enough to be in Morocco.

The theme of this year’s ACI Africa/World Annual General Assembly, Conference and Exhibition was ‘Sky’s the limit: Discovering opportunities within change’, and the event – hosted by Moroccan Airports Authority (ONDA) – began with opening addresses by Morocco’s Minister of Transport and Logistics, Mohammed Abdeljalil; ONDA director general, Habiba Laklalech; ACI Africa president, Emanuel Chaves; ACI Africa secretary general Ali Tounsi; CEO of Oman Airports Management Company and ACI World chair, Sheikh Aimen Al Hosni; and ACI World director general, Luis Felipe de Oliveira.

“As ACI Africa embarks on its fourth decade, it remains determined to support the strategy and roadmap of all African airports towards enhanced safety, security, best industry practices, decarbonisation, digital transformation and sustainability. The future is in our hands,” noted ACI Africa’s Tounsi.

In his state of the industy address, ACI World’s de Oliveira said: “As you know, the pandemic’s impact has been far greater than any crisis we have experienced before. However, it has given us a chance to build back better and seize opportunities in a changing environment.

“And what better sign of a positive future [for aviation] than the adoption of a landmark long-term climate goal for aviation taken by the world’s governments a few weeks ago at 41st ICAO Assembly.

“The decision will drive the future of the industry and the future of our sector. It is a major moment in the decarbonisation of airports as governments and industry are now heading in the same direction.”

In terms of the global traffic recovery, de Oliveira told delegates that around three billion passengers passed through the world’s airports in the first half of 2022, which was 69% of the total handled in the corresponding period in 2019.

He noted that the relaxation of travel restrictions had proved the catalyst for recovery, with ACI World now predicting that global passenger numbers will hit 6.8 billion by year-end – 74% of pre-pandemic levels – and reach 2019 levels in late 2023 before a full recovery in 2024.

“Looking longer-term, we expect global passenger figures to reach 18 billion by 2040 with the growth coming from Africa and emerging countries, and in this part of the world, we expect the aviation market to triple in size in certain locations.”

Concluding his address, de Oliveira said: “By working together we can continue to responsibly take the necessary actions to step out of the shadows of the pandemic and do what we do best, transporting goods and services, and connecting businesses, families and loved ones from all four corners of the globe.”

ACI Africa’s Chaves took the opportunity to address the number of key challenges and opportunities facing African airports, stating that aviation’s commitment to decarbonise by 2050 was one of the biggest challenges.

In respone to the challenge, he noted that ACI Africa has set up a Sustainable Aviation Academy, fully endorsed ACI’s Airport Carbon Accreditation programme and urged member airports to embrace sustainability to ensure that all existing facilities and new infrastructure is “resilient to climate risk”.

Chaves also noted that ACI Africa continues to grow as a regional organisation – it  now represents 71 airport members that between them operate 265 airports in over 50 countries and has 56 World Business Partners – and is committed to helping raise service standards, operational best practices, sustainable development and safety and security levels across the continent.

Two keynote speakers followed the opening ceremony. First up, the president and CEO of the Flight Safety Foundation, Dr Hassan Shahidi, discussed some of the safety challenges facing African aviation. While the secretary general of the African Civil Aviation Commission (AFCAC), Adefunke Adeyemi, covered some wider issues such as airline liberalisation and the possibility of one single air transport market for the whole of Africa in a bid to improve connectivity within the continent.

Adeyemi opened by reminding delegates about the size and enormous potential of Africa, explaining that the continent has a population of 1.4 billion spread across a landmass of 30 million square kilometres – big enough to fit the US, China, India and parts of Europe combined inside its borders.

Its size, she said, made aviation vital to transporting people across the continent, yet a number of obstacles currently restricted growth and connectivity between African airports, resulting in only around 100 million of the continent’s huge population flying today.

As a result, observed Adeyemi, the African Union and subsequently AFCA supports two key projects designed to boost aviation growth across the continent – the creation of a Single African Air Transport Market (SAATM) and establishing an African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) to effectively ensure the free movement of people, goods and services.

“SAATM is important because currently Africa’s liberalisation in terms of Fifth Freedom access is set at less than 15%, meaning that only 15% of the entire continent with a population of 1.4 billion are connected properly by air,” said Adeyemi.

“If all of the countries in Africa opened up their markets to each other on a Fifth Freedom basis, amazing things could happen. For example, it will add an additional $4.2 billion to the GDP of African economies and create almost 600,000 additional jobs. And it will reduce the cost of airfares by 30%, which is a big issue in Africa because of the affordability of air travel.”

Up next was the always lively CEOs panel discussion. In the hot-seat this year were Deborah Flint, president and CEO of Greater Toronto Airports Authority; Kadri Sumsunlu, CEO of iGA Istanbul Airport; Geoff Culbert, CEO of Sydney Airport; Joseph Lopano, CEO of Tampa International Airport; and Alex Gitari, managing director of Kenya Airports Authority.

In answer to the question where their respective airports were today in terms of their recovery from the pandemic, Sydney Airport’s Culbert said: “This time last year I was sitting in lockdown in Sydney, I couldn’t leave my country. Nobody was allowed to come into Australia and the borders of Australian states were shut to each other so I couldn’t even leave New South Wales. As a result, we were handling around 1% of our pre-COVID traffic numbers, losing A$1 million a day, and there was no end in sight.

“As I sit here today, we are 85% recovered in terms of domestic passenger traffic, 65% recovered on international, and that feels great! Our biggest year was 2019 when we handled around 44 million passengers. I expect to handle a high 20 million this year and to be fully recovered domestically next year, and get international back in 2024.”

GTAA’s Flint revealed that Canada’s strict travel measures during the pandemic led to Toronto Pearson’s all-time high of 50 million passengers in 2019 falling to just 12 million 2020 and 2021, although a healthier 38 million (75% of 2019 levels) are expected to pass through its facilities this year.

All the other airport leaders reported strong recoveries from COVID – IST is expected to be Europe’s busiest airport for the third year running in 2022 – and expected their respective gateways to be back to pre-pandemic levels for both domestic and international traffic next year.

Regarding some of the well documented delays at airports this summer due to new passenger processing requirements and insufficient staffing issues due to the rapid return of passenger numbers, GTAA’s Flint noted that Toronto Pearson hadn’t been immune from the problem, which was exacerbated by traveller levels at YYZ rising from 10% of 2019’s levels back to pre-pandemic levels within the space of two months.

It had led to what she described as “a summer of frustration on behalf of passengers” made more challenging by an “exponential increase in processing times” due to the new health requirements. The situation, she believed, highlighted the importance of working together with different stakeholders to solve issues as well as the need to be more transparent and forthright with each other about the readiness and ability to perform their different roles.

Describing some of the resourcing difficulties Sydney has faced due to the rapid return of passengers, Culbert told delegates that his airport lost half of its 30,000 staff during the pandemic, but didn’t feel confident enough to start recruiting replacements until Australia’s borders opened up, which wasn’t until January 2022. Australia’s strict COVID health regulations, which required anyone coming into contact with an infected person to self-isolate, meant that on any given day 30% of the airport’s existing workforce was off sick.

One positive to come out of the situation, said Culbert, was that it “drove a new level of collaboration between the airport and the airlines as we knew we had to solve this together”.

TPA’s Lopano accepted that COVID had changed everything for airports in terms of their job appeal, and one way his gateway had responded to this challenge was by making a newly opened office block more people friendly for workers through initiatives such as creating bigger work stations, more open spaces and communal areas as well as opening a fitness centre. The “good environment”, he noted, had tempted many individuals back to the office even though it wasn’t a requirement for them.

He also noted that the downturn in passengers had allowed TPA to accelerate a $600 million kerbside development project, which would enhance the airport experience for passengers and save his gateway “a ton of money in the process”.

In a light hearted end to the session, in response to the hypothetical question which airport and airline in the world would they like to manage one day, Flint suggested Amsterdam Schiphol and Southwest; Sumsunlu offered any airport in Hawaii and Pegasus Airlines; Culbert said Skukuaa Airport on the edge of the Kruger National Park in South Africa and a born again Pan Am; and Gitari said Curacao Airport in the Caribbean and his own airline.

The very important topic of how the industry can work to and achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050 came under the microscope in the final panel session of the day, with thoughts and advice being offered by ACI EUROPE’s director general, Olivier Jankovec; Sam Samaddar, CEO of Kelowna International Airport; Willy Etheve, director of development at Réunion’s Roland Garros International Airport; and Akihiko Tamura, president and CEO of Narita International Airport.

Jankovec was proud to note that ACI’s Airport Carbon Accreditation programme, launched by ACI EUROPE in 2009, now boasted 420 accredited airports – including 25 in 13 counties in Africa – that account for 50% of the world’s passenger traffic.

The programme, he reflected, was a key part of aviation’s commitment to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2050, and therefore was constantly being updated and improved, with a new ‘Net Zero’ level of accreditation set to be announced next year.

Official business on Day 1 ended with ACI World’s Annual Assembly where a number of Resolutions were passed that are designed to strengthen the sustainability and resilience of airports as key players in the aviation ecosystem.

Following the recent landmark agreement by governments, the Resolution Delivering the Long-Term Aspirational Goal acknowledges the challenges that face airports and governments in achieving their goal of net zero carbon emissions by 2050.

The Resolution calls on governments to support the global electrical grid transitioning, update the regulatory framework to accommodate the integration of alternative fuel sources at airports, and incentivise infrastructure development with appropriate financial mechanisms.

Others Resolutions passed included one calling on governments to acknowledge the changed risk profile of airports in some jurisdictions due to the pandemic and to provide regulatory support to restore economic equilibrium for unrecovered costs, either as financial compensation or through future airport charges.

While another calls on governments and industry to support the capital and human resource development plans of small, emerging, and regional airports and to facilitate their transition to renewable energy.

A spectacular Gala Dinner followed where in between a veritable feast of traditional Moroccan food and music and dancing, ACI World announced the winners of the ACI World-Amadeus Technology Innovation Awards.

The winner of the ‘Best innovation in airport passenger related processes’ was AENA for the biometric journey offered to passengers at Barcelona Airport. The award for ‘Best innovation in airport operations and installations management’ went to Incheon Airport for its Data Sandbox. And Hamad International Airport’s senior vice president for technology and innovation, Suhail Kamil Kadri, was named as the winner of the ‘Best airport innovation leader (individual)’.

ACI World director general, Luis Felipe de Oliveira, enthused: “Technology is a key ingredient to building a stronger, sustainable, and more resilient aviation industry. It will also be crucial to continue our overall mission to put the customer at the centre of everything we do. Whether directly touching on the airport experience or improving operations, it ultimately benefits the traveller and the communities we serve. And we wouldn’t exist without both.

“We congratulate these winners for pushing our industry to new heights. They are true examples to their peers.”

Day 2 began with a presentation from Incheon International Airport Corporation executive vice president, Hee-Jeong Lee, about the company’s customer service philosophy that recently led to it becoming the first airport in the world to achieve Level 5 status in ACI’s ASQ customer excellence programme.

She was followed by a session about the passengers of tomorrow, who will travel and what expectations will they have involving Joyce Carter, the CEO of Halifax Stanfied International Airport; Marco Troncone, CEO of Aeroporti di Roma; and Askin Demir, CEO of Limak-AIBD-Summa (LAS), operator of Dakar’s AIBD International Airport.

Discussing the need to adapt to meet the ever changing needs of passengers and ultimately the traveller of the future, Halifax’s Carter noted that the top priority of keeping passengers safe changed during the pandemic to also include their health.

“Everything we did every day during the pandemic was to think about the health of those passengers travelling through our airport as well as those working there,” said Carter.

“And in terms of passenger expectations, our passengers now expect the same level of services that we offered before the pandemic, particularly with regards to food and beverages and retail, and as we all know, it’s not. So, we have spent quite a fair amount of time communicating with our passengers about what services are available and how they should plan their trip from kerb to gate or really from home to destination.”

In terms of current and future passenger demands, Carter revealed that there had been a big increase in the desire for locally sourced goods and services at Halifax’s shops and restaurants and an upturn in older (55+) travellers, the latter being boosted by the arrival of a number of ultra-low cost carriers.

Looking to the future, AdR’s Troncone said that he thought passengers would expect the airport experience to be a smart one, comprising new digital services that guaranteed them a faster, more affordable, predictable and easier experience at more environmentally friendly airports.

Panel sessions on valuing airport infrastructure for an economically sustainable and resilient future; non-aeronautical revenues post COVID; and the digital transformation and managing the cyber security threats followed before the conference part of the show ended with a session called ‘The Workforce Crisis: Thinking Long Term’.

The final session, passionately moderated by consultant Yolanta Strikitsa, saw Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport CEO and vice chair of the ACI World Board, Candace McGraw, among the panellists providing their thoughts on what the future possibly holds for airports in terms of recruiting, training and holding onto staff.

Discussing the ‘pain points’ for CVG when it comes to attracting and retaining staff, McGraw said the airport’s Strategic Workforce Collaborative – a forum formed in 2018 to bring airport employers together to share best practices and ensure a strong workforce to fill future airport jobs – had identified a number of issues that needed to be addressed ranging from transportation difficulties, such as getting to and from the airport, to child care.

In response to the transportation issues, she said that CVG had successfully worked with the local transport provider to increase frequencies to the airport throughout the day.

And she revealed that the airport is currently working on how it can locate a childcare facility on the airport site that is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

“We have also identified some hiring areas where we weren’t doing very well,” stated McGraw. “We weren’t hiring military veterans, for example. We also realised that we could find jobs for more people with different abilities.”

At the closing ceremony it was announced that Spanish airport operator, AENA, will host next year’s ACI EUROPE/World Annual General Assembly, Conference and Exhibition in Barcelona in June 2023. See you there!

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