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Joe Bates looks back at some of the highlights of the recent SMART Airports & Regions Conference and Exhibition in El Paso.

Airport leader panels moderated by CNN’s Nick Valencia helped draw a crowd of around 300 delegates to the opening sessions of the SMART Airports & Regions Conference and Exhibition in El Paso, Texas, USA.

In the spotlight in the first ‘CNN SMART 360’ panel session were El Paso International Airport (ELP) aviation director, Monica Lombraña; Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL) general manager, John Selden; Metropolitan Airports Commission CEO, Brian Ryks; and St Louis Lambert International Airport (STL) director and CEO, Rhonda Hamm-Niebruegge.


While Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA) managing director, Lance Lyttle; Denver International Airport (DEN) senior vice president, Stacey Stegman; Edmonton International Airport (EIA) president and CEO, Tom Ruth; and Portland International Airport (PDX) director of airport operations, Daren Griffin, were in the hot seat in CNN SMART 360 Part Two.

Both panels covered a wide range of topics ranging from embracing new technology; the importance of engaging with the local business communities; the difficulty of attracting and retaining new staff; to how they would like people to view their respective airports in five to ten years’ time.

ATL’s Selden, whose airport remains the world’s busiest handling 107.3 million passengers in 2018, told delegates that ensuring that his gateway was equipped to stay ahead of demand and recruiting new staff were two of his biggest challenges.

“Atlanta is growing very fast and there’s no sign of a slowing down,” said Selden, revealing that the airport expects to handle close to 110 million passengers this year, generating an impressive $80 billion in economic activity.

“Our strength is our connectivity. We’re the busiest airport in the world, and we keep growing, and one way we can handle rising demand, and maintain service levels, is through embracing innovation,” added Selden.


“Facial recognition technology, for example, would mitigate the need to show your ID countless times during the airport journey.”

He stated that finding ways to integrate new technologies to make passenger journeys smoother and faster, and provide improved levels of customer service, was a goal of ATL as it would help it get more people through its facilities and avoid, or at least delay, the need to build costly new infrastructure.

On the difficulty ATL and most airports currently face in attracting talented new staff, Selden said: “Attracting talent is probably our greatest challenge,” a statement he based on the competition faced from other industries, the processes staff have to go through to get an airport ID to work at an airport and the fact that airport jobs are not always among the best paid compared to the private sector.

He believes that industry wide challenges in the US include the need to make smarter use of the country’s airspace to allow airports to safely and more efficiently handle more flights.

And in response to what he hoped people would be saying about ATL in five to 10 years’ time, Selden, said: “It’s really crowded here, but we moved fast. I’d also hope they say, my flights on time, and I’d want our employees to say we’re really proud of the airport.”


Talking about the growth of Minneapolis-Saint Paul International Airport (MSP), Ryks noted that Delta’s second largest hub handled a record 38 million passengers in 2018 and is an economic powerhouse for the region, accounting for around 87,000 jobs and $16 billion in economic impact.

He revealed that building up air services remains a primary focus, and from MSP’s perspective this meant talking to the business community on a regular basis to find out “not only where they fly to today, but where they will be going in three to five years’ time”, to give his gateway the heads up on possible new services.


St Louis Lambert’s Hamm-Niebruegge agreed with Selden about the empowering ability of new technology, especially when it comes to the collection of data that allows airports to better serve their passengers, but cautioned that the rapid advancement in technology meant that a “new state-of-the-art system” could quickly become out of date.

On the subject of working with economic partners in the local community, she said: “As an airport, if you are not tied into the local community, you are going to lose,” noting how the previously disconnected St Louis business community came to her airport’s aid after the 2011 tornado cause widespread damage to its terminal.

She also revealed that the airport’s economic impact had grown from $4 billion to the local St Louis community in 2013 to closer to $7 billion today, with Lambert directly employing 7,000 staff.

El Paso’s Lombraña talked about her gateway’s pioneering development of non-aviation related commercial facilities on the airport and how this ensured that non-aviation activity today accounts for 72% of the ELP’s revenues.

She noted that El Paso International Airport generated $2.2 billion per annum in economic activity and was directly responsible for 16,000 jobs. Lombraña also touched on how expanding El Paso’s air connectivity to other US cities remained her biggest challenge.


In the second CNN 360 SMART panel, Edmonton’s Ruth highlighted some of the impressive developments going on at his airport today as the gateway looks to decrease its dependency on aeronautical revenues, boost its commercial income and cement its status as one of the region’s most important economic generators.

Seattle-Tacoma’s Lyttle stated that the ambition of the Port of Seattle is to drive economic growth by creating 100,000 new jobs in the local community over the next 25 years.

He admitted that the vision was a big one, but believed that it would happen and that route development at Sea-Tac was a key way of achieving the goal, especially as Seattle is home to a number of huge international companies ranging from Amazon, Boeing and Starbucks to Microsoft, in addition to being a major port for cruise ships.

He said: “We work very closely with the airlines, especially Alaska, to develop our connectivity as new routes create prosperity for all.”


With regards to the future development of Sea-Tac, Lyttle admitted that it was a constant battle with the local communities to win support for any projects that supported his gateway’s growth, despite its hugely positive impact on Seattle and the entire region.

“Our annual economic impact is $23.4 billion, but we still get a lot of resistance from the local communities who are opposed to any growth at the airport,” said Lyttle.


Stegman felt that coping with growth is Denver International Airport’s biggest challenge, although she admitted that with six runways already and enough land to add another six, her gateway was blessed compared to most other space constrained US airports.

She noted that DEN is the fifth busiest airport in the US with an annual economic impact of $26 billion and that it is currently in the midst of a terminal expansion programme that will add 30% more gates.

The airport’s good relationship with the local business communities ensured that it was “joined at the hip” with the chamber of commerce and other organisations dedicated to promoting and developing Denver and the surrounding region as an area to set up and do business in, added Stegman.

The session also led to the sharpest intake of breath of the day when PDX’s Griffin revealed that the threat of seismic activity arguably posed one of his airport’s greatest challenges due to the location of the 700-mile long Cascadia subduction zone just off of the coast of California, Oregon and Washington states.


“About 10 years ago we became aware of the type of seismic activity we should be preparing for, which is an earthquake in the magnitude of 9.0 about 50 miles off of the Oregon coast,” said Griffin.

“This would represent a major plate shift and result in a massive tsunami. The ground is really going to shake, and it is supposed to happen around every 250 to 300 million years and we’re on year 319 right now. So, there is this constant pressure to build resiliency into all new infrastructure and every aspect of our operations.

“But how do you get a runway to survive that? It is scary, but now that we are aware of the risks we can plan for them and hopefully minimise the impact on PDX so that we would be back up and running within a few months rather than possibly years.”

Like Seden and Ryks, Griffin said that attracting and keeping new talent was a challenge as unemployment in Portland was currently around 3%. He added that PDX’s ambition in this regard was to create an environment where “new entrants can see a clear career path to the top jobs and salaries of over $100,000 a year”.

Delegates had earlier been welcomed to the event by Lombraña and conference chair, and president and CEO of MXD Development Strategists, Chris LeTourneur, who took the opportunity to talk about the growing economic importance of El Paso and the “phenomenal” amount of cross-border trade taking place in the region before highlighting four key trends driving the development of SMART Airports across the world – collaboration, innovative partnerships, being ready to go, and the rise of mid-sized airports.


Next up were sessions on ‘Airport Investment, Governance and Stakeholder Cooperation’ and ‘Next Airports & Smart Cities – Preparing for 2030 and Beyond’, both moderated by LeTourneur.

His panellists in the former session included DFW’s John Terrell; Charlotte Douglas’ Rebecca Simensen; Aerotropolis Atlanta Alliance’s Shannon James; Hubstart Paris Region Alliance’s Elisabeth Le Masson; and Borderplex Alliance’s Jon Barela.

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All outlined a host of innovative developments and in some cases pioneering schemes taking place at and around their gateways. John Terrell, DFW’s vice president for commercial development, for example, talked about his gateway’s growing reputation as the economic engine for North Texas, while Aerotropolis Atlanta Alliance president and CEO, Shannon James, reminded everyone about the continued public-private partnership (PPP) driven transformation of land around Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.

Terrell said: “DFW has played its part in creating an amazing economic success story in the Dallas and Fort Worth region, which if ranked as a country, would be ranked 28th in the world in terms of its GDP. Of all the domestic and international companies that have relocated to our region in the last 20 years, every single one of them has put DFW as their number one or two reason for moving there.”

He stated that DFW’s international route development was the catalyst for much of the recent growth – it now offers non-stop flights to 63 destinations – and is the primary reason why the Texas gateway is expecting a huge spike in traffic this year with an all-time high of 73.4 million passengers predicted to have passed through its facilities by year-end.

The total would be an incredible 4.4 million more passengers than DFW handled in 2018. The upturn in traffic has led to it unveiling plans for a new 24-gate Terminal F, which is slated for completion in 2025.

“The gigantic increase in the number of passengers we expect to handle this year clearly shows that we are doing something right for both the region and as an airport,” remarked Terrell.

“Every one of our international wide-body flights generates approximately $250 million in economic impact to the DFW region every year. That is the equivalent to a Super Bowl for every direct flight.”


DFW also boasts one of the most ambitious commercial land development use plans at a US airport, which now includes the creation of Passport Park, a mixed-use industrial complex on a 600 acre site at south end of the airport, and a North Destination District boasting offices, high-end hospitality, retail and entertainment facilities.

An exciting and eventful first day ended with a Gala Evening at Topgolf El Paso where food, music and dancing was also on the agenda as well as trying to drive/chip/shank micro-chipped golf balls into giant targets dotted across a driving range.

Day 2 was split into three separate steams with Stream A featuring IT innovation and customer service sessions, while Stream B focused on commercial strategies and non-aeronautical revenue generation, and Stream C on infrastructure design and development.

In a session called ‘Redefining the infrastructure master plan’, LoneStar Airport Holdings LLC’s CEO, Jeff Pearse, essentially outlined the benefits of PPP projects and how US airports could benefit from private investors funding and developing individual facilities or entire airports like San Juan–Luis Muñoz Marin International Airport in Puerto Rico.

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Pearse, who used Austin Bergstrom’s South Terminal as an example of the successful PPP development of an individual facility at a US airport, said: “With America’s airports facing more than $128 billion in new infrastructure needs across the system and a debt burden of $91.6 billion from past projects, it is time to find the means to rebuild our nation’s transportation infrastructure and improve the passenger experience for millions of travellers.

“We know that it’s a challenge for airports and we know that traditional funding mechanisms are never going to be able to keep up with the escalating costs of construction on airports. So, if experts say that the existing funding system fails to meet the infrastructure needs for modernising and expanding airport capacity, perhaps it is time for another approach?”

He was, however, quick to point out that PPPs may not be for all, but noted that under the right conditions they have proven to be a successful way of developing airports across the globe, and felt that there was much more to come from such projects in the US in the future.

Steam A’s conference sessions ended on an uplifting and positive note with some of the industry’s best-known customer service champions telling delegates about a number of innovative ways airports and airlines across the globe are raising the bar on service levels.

The session, moderated by ACI’s manager for business development and customer care (ASQ), Sevda Fevzi, featured the ever-ebullient Karen Ellis from San Antonio International Airport and Los Angeles World Airport’s chief experience officer, Barbara Yamamoto.


Introducing the topic in the session entitled ‘Delivering a unique customer centric experience’, Fevzi reminded delegates about the many different components that airports have to take onboard to ensure a good airport experience for passengers.

The list – which she called ‘the ingredients for successful airport customer experience management’ – includes finding out more about the wants and needs of customers and sharing this information with staff; creating an airport culture based on the delivery of customer service excellence; and engaging all airport stakeholders in a collaborative approach to delivering “a great customer experience”.

She noted that ACI World’s Airport Service Quality (ASQ) programmes are designed to help airports achieve customer service excellence, and today include the ASQ Arrivals and ASQ Departures surveys, the Employee Survey for Customer Experience and the ASQ Commercial Survey.


Ellis, San Antonio’s chief customer experience officer, spoke about her airport’s award winning approach to customer service, choosing to focus on the role technology plays in ensuring high passenger satisfaction levels at her gateway.

She told delegates that understanding the varying needs of different passengers and recognising the various digital touchpoints on the passenger journey had allowed her airport to concentrate on providing customers with the facilities and services they want/expect when they wanted them.

Yamamoto’s presentation was on employee engagement, which she put in perspective by revealing that 55,000 badged staff work at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), including 3,600 from LAWA, which in 2018 handled 87.5 million passengers.

LAWA’s philosophy, she said, was that in order to improve the ‘guest experience’ at LAX, it first had to start with its employees, as “to get happy and loyal customers, you first had to have happy employees”.


This strategy, noted Yamamoto, led to airport staff helping draft the airport’s ‘LAXceptional Xperience’ goals, and the creation of a Guest Experience Partners Council comprising representatives from LAWA and the main stakeholder groups (airlines, concessionaires, service providers and government agencies), which meets on monthly basis to discuss the airport wide issues that are most impacting on the guest experience.

Council representatives also “walk through” LAX’s nine terminals twice a month to see for themselves how each facility is faring, and this has led to the creation of action plans for each terminal, which at the moment has over 400 items on it.

And input from the council has been used to launch the LAXceptional People Plan for the training and development of staff and introduction of a rewards and recognition programme.

Yamamoto said: “I want to leave you with this lasting thought. We can all have smart facilities, with the best technologies and coolest innovations, but we shouldn’t lose sight of the human touch provided by our employees as airports are stressful places and caring attitudes can really make the difference and take the edge of a stressful situation.”

Prior to the conference, delegates had the opportunity to buy some cowboys boots, visit the world’s largest inland desalination plant and climb aboard – and take selfies in – the one and only Super Guppy at EPIA’s on-site NASA facility during an airport tour, while the more energetic ones took part in a Pre-Conference Golf Tournament.

The morning tour was followed by a pre-conference AeroParker Workshop before the Welcome Reception and the opening of the Exhibition Hall, which this year was filled by more than 55 exhibitors, sponsors and supporters from close to 20 countries.


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