Star of Texas: Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport
Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport’s executive vice president of global strategy and development, John Ackerman, tells Joe Bates more about the growth and future development plans of the Texas gateway.
It feels like Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport (DFW) and the Dallas Metroplex area are on a bit of a roll, with the Texas gateway building a reputation as one of the world’s most pioneering and fastest growing airports and the surrounding region developing one of the US’s most dynamic and diverse economies.
In terms of facts and figures, it may surprise you to learn that DFW was the second busiest airport in the world for passenger traffic in 2021, and based on preliminary statistics, the 72 million passengers that passed through its facilities last year will almost certainly ensure that it remains in the Top 3 going into 2023.
“We are more or less fully recovered from COVID,” enthuses DFW’s executive vice president of global strategy and development, John Ackerman.
“We were fortunate enough to recover a little faster than most airports in the United States, and indeed the world for that matter, and as a result our passenger numbers last year were only about 1% shy of our 2019 levels.
“Traffic growth got stronger throughout the year and has been outpacing pre-COVID levels in recent months. As a consequence, we expect to welcome more passengers this year than we did before the pandemic.”
Based on current projections, that would mean a record 78 million passengers passing through DFW in 2023 – 4% more than its previous high of 75 million in 2019.
Without doubt DFW’s passenger growth has been driven by hub carrier, American Airlines, and a not insignificant total of 192 domestic destinations served from the airport by it and other carriers.
However, international traffic is also on the rise, and now accounts for around 12% of all passengers handled at the airport. And with a number of new routes added during the COVID pandemic, Ackerman believes that the Texas gateway now offers an enviable network of both domestic and international routes.
“With such a strong domestic network, we will always handle more passengers on internal flights within the US than to international destinations. Nevertheless, I think it is important to note that we have a healthy international route network, which we need, to serve the fast growing North Texas economy,” he says.
“I have been here for eight years now and every year we get new projections for job and economic growth across the region, and every year we exceed these targets as the region’s economy truly is dynamic.
“The appeal of the region, and I must add our ongoing efforts to boost our international route network, proved the catalyst for DFW becoming the only major airport in the world to come out of the pandemic with more international routes than we had when we went into it.
“New additions have included Turkish Airlines adding Istanbul, Finnair starting a Helsinki service, American launching Auckland, Iberia commencing Madrid and Qantas starting flights from Melbourne.
“I am also particularly proud of the fact that Qatar Airways operated services between Doha and DFW throughout the pandemic and we also never lost international flights to London and Tokyo, so we maintained our connections to the world.”
There is simply no disputing that DFW is well connected, in fact, according to OAG data released in late 2022, it is the second most connected ‘Megahub’ in the world after Chicago O’Hare.
Ackerman says that it is a nice accolade to have, but he doesn’t pay too much attention to it and that it won’t impact on the airport’s future route development plans, with potential new destinations already identified and being targeted.
He is as equally philosophical about DFW’s 2021 status as the second busiest airport in the world for passenger traffic, behind only Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta (ATL), noting that his airport’s elevation from the 10th busiest gateway on the planet pre-COVID to No.2 in the rankings has been at the expense of traffic declines at other airports.
“It was great to be the second busiest airport in the world, and I expect that we will be right on up there this year, too, but we all know that this wasn’t the case pre-COVID, and probably won’t be so in the future as the rest of the world recovers and the pendulum swings back to equilibrium,” says Ackerman.
Diverse economic appeal of North Texas
The Dallas/Fort Worth region and North Texas – DFW is located midway between the cities of Dallas and Fort Worth – has a truly diverse economy that these days is far from dependent on the oil and gas industries.
Indeed, DFW sits at the heart of the fourth largest metropolitan area in the US, and it is growing at such a pace – eight million inhabitants and counting – that it is expected to catch up with Chicago within the next 10 years.
The economy of the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex (Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington), also referred to as Silicon Prairie, is primarily based on banking, commerce, insurance, telecommunications, technology, energy, health care, medical research and transportation and logistics.
Dallas has played a leading role in expanding the US’s financial technology (fintech) industry, for example, and thanks to Texas Instruments and others is a centre for the manufacturer of semiconductors.
According to the latest Bloomberg data, the mix makes the region’s economy the second most diverse in the whole of the US, and this has helped encourage 49 Fortune 500 companies to set up headquarters in Texas, which ranks it second to only New York and California (both 53).
Ackerman notes: “Eight years ago when we talked to international airlines about route development, many would say to us that they already flew to Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco and Chicago, and you got the feeling that it would take something pretty special to get them to fly to the centre of the country.
“DFW, if you like, was secondary consideration in their thoughts. Now I would argue that we are a top consideration as the world’s airlines know that they need DFW on their map. There has been a siesmic shift in both the recognition of the market and the growth of the economy with hundreds of global companies moving to the area in the last decade.”
Gold in the hold
DFW’s sizeable route network and the region’s growing reputation as a logistics hub have also helped make DFW a major cargo hub, the importance of which until a few years ago wasn’t even fully recognised by the airport itself.
Ackerman explains: “We’ve always known that cargo was important to DFW, we just didn’t realise how important until an Economic Impact Study about six or seven years ago revealed that cargo and logistics was responsible for about 55% of the airport’s economic impact to the region.
“This was way higher than we thought and made us realise that it was time to focus more on cargo and promoting, developing and growing this side of the business, the potential of which is so often overlooked.”
DFW has since discovered that the bulk of international inbound cargo shipments to the US still arrive via the East and West coasts and cities such as New York, Miami, San Francisco and Los Angeles before being transported inland by truck and train.
The Texas gateway, however, believes that it would make more sense to do this the other way around with cargo being flown to the centre of the country, where airports such as DFW are less congested and, in its case, has a growing, wealthy population on its doorstep.
In a bid to make DFW more appealing as a cargo destination, the airport has opened a state-of-the-art persishables facility inline with its strategy of targetting shippers of temperature and time-sensitive goods, and later this year hopes to announce plans for two new cargo buildings, at least one of which will be for e-commerce consignments.
Ackerman says: “We are creating world class cargo facilities as cargo is very important for us and a key economic generator for us and the region.”
DFW handled a record one million tons of freight in 2021 and around 970,000 tons last year, which wasn’t entirely unexpected due to the global contraction of the market.
Facilities and new infrastructure
Between 2011 and 2017, DFW’s Terminal Renewal and Improvement Project renovated Terminals A, B and E, and Terminal C was planned to be renovated at a later time.
The airport is now embarking on the Terminal C redevelopment programme, which will build on the success and customer satisfaction received from the newly deployed High C gates. The project is expected to improve the customer experience by providing high-end finishes and amenities in an energy-efficient building. Additionally, proposals for a sixth terminal, Terminal F, are back on the agenda.
The original plan was to renovate the four terminals – the newer, international Terminal D doesn’t need modernising – and work has duly been completed on the refurbishment of Terminals A, B and E.
However, instead of revamping Terminal C, it has now been decided to replace it in phases as well as expand it with a new pier. In addition, the airport has also decided to add a new pier to Terminal A.
Ackerman admits that it took DFW a little time to convince its airline partners that this was the right path to go down for Terminal C, and the global pandemic didn’t help in this regards, but with all of them now onboard with the project, the new-look Terminal C will be constructed over the next three to five years.
However, what couldn’t wait, according to Ackerman, was the need to replace four ‘temporary’ gates in the existing Terminal C that had became permanent over time as they fell well below the usual high standard required by DFW. So, in June 2022, the airport replaced them with four new gates at the south end of Terminal C that have become known as the High C Gates (C35-C39).
They were built utilising the latest innovation in modular construction and engineering, effectively meaning that they were constructed off-site, then transported overnight into place to allow for the inside finishes to begin.
Modular construction reduced the time needed to build the gates, reducing the impact on customers.
He notes that due to a collaborative approach on the project – DFW constructed the shell and core of the terminal and American Airlines carried out finishes to the interior – the High C gates were completed 25% under budget and four months ahead of schedule.
The new gates are the beginning of the step by step upgrade of Terminal C as the airport prepares to construct nine new gates as part of the Terminal C Pier project.
Talking about the High C gates, Ackerman says that they have enhanced the customer experience with innovative technology such as dynamic glass windows and smart restrooms.
And they feature unique artwork throughout that is designed to provide a relaxing atmosphere to help customers de-stress while in the gate waiting area.
In addition the gate lounges feature large digital information screens that feature flight information, and their addition has allowed for new retail and F&B options in Terminal C.
“The brand new design of the High C Gates are getting rave reviews. The entire aesthetic is different and passengers really seem to love what we have done,” says Ackerman.
“Having learned how well the off-site construction of the High C Gates worked, we have decided to renovate all of Terminal C using the same modular methodology of construction. This will mean taking out three, four or five gates at a time, and while we’re tearing them down we’ll be building a new module off-site and, and as soon as the space is clear, we’ll push it in, hook it up, and we’ve got gates. We intend to do this to save a lot of time and money for the airlines.
“We have also announced plans for new piers to Terminal C and Terminal A that will net us an additional nine gates.”
Next up will be a new Terminal F, which when first muted in 2019 was described as a potential 25-gate facility with a price-tag of $3 billion that would be located to the south of Terminal D.
Such a big facility is unlikely to be built in the short-term, but Ackerman reveals that DFW’s sixth terminal is definitely back on track.
“The final domino to fall will be a new Terminal F. We have been negotiating with American Airlines and our other airline partners about what that will look like and the timing of its development. I would say we are close to agreeing a deal, but don’t have anything to announce just yet,” he says.
Ackerman notes that the airport and its airline partners will 100% fund the infrastructure upgrade ensuring that not one tax payer dollar will be spent on enhancing DFW’s facilities.
He is also quick to add that all commercial profits above a certain threshold are automatically reinevsted back in DFW in line with FAA guidelines, with 75% of the total going to its airline customers.
Airlines & route development
DFW is currently served by 28 airlines that between them operate around 865 daily departures to 261 destinations across the US and the globe.
Home carrier, American Airlines, currently accounts for around 84% of all passengers at DFW, and Ackerman is quick to praise the airline for its commitment to the Texas gateway.
“I want to give special credit to America Airlines as they flew more of their schedule than any other airline during the pandemic, especially during its first year, when it was quite aggressive in maintenaining services as other airlines reduced or cancelled their respective operations,” he says.
“In the US, network carriers are very important, and American was very thoughtful in the way that it looked at things and rebuilt its schedule. As a result of this, it managed to create a lot more city pairs and connections from DFW that made a big difference for us in terms of our recovery.”
After American, the next biggest airlines serving DFW in terms of market share are Spirit (4%), Delta (3%), United (3%) and Frontier (2%).
Ackerman reminds me that Qatar Airways now operates double daily services between Doha and DFW and that the airport’s route development team played a key role in the launch of the new services to Auckland, Helsinki, Istanbul and Melbourne.
He reveals that the airport’s marketing decision to offer an extra financial COVID incentive to the airlines to either maintain their existing services or restore them as early as they could also helped DFW recover more quickly from the global pandemic than other airports.
The addition of Iberia’s Madrid service (the route was already served by American), the new Finnair route to Helsinki and Melbourne route operated by Qantas means that DFW is officially the world’s biggest oneworld hub.
Doing things differently
While not entirely immune to it, the post-COVID recruitment issues that are currently causing headaches for airports across the globe are not so evident at DFW, mostly due to the airport’s rapid recovery from the pandemic and the airport operator’s refusal to lay off any staff.
“In was particularly tough in the first few months of the pandemic when traffic was 90% down and our industry partners started to lay off staff,” says Ackerman.
“I have to say that we were lucky enough to go into it with a very strong balance sheet. We thought we were prepared for anything, but COVID proved that this clearly wasn’t the case. However, our strong financial position gave us some flexibility and allowed us to make some different decisions to other airports.
“We did two things very early on. We slashed our operating budget by over 25% in a matter of a couple of weeks. It was a case of all hands on deck. Here’s what’s going on, we are going to survive this, but it’s not going to be easy and delaying making the decision might only make things worse.
“So, if something didn’t need to be done, it was gone. Our teams knew the severity of the situation and did an amazing job in helping make the rapid reduction to our operating costs.
“At the same time, despite the difficulties, we made an announcement that nobody at DFW would be laid off, and I’m really proud of this. It was a bold call to make, not least because having made that promise if we did end up having to lay people off, it really would not have gone down well.
“The challenge was to run a smarter airport, better, to preserve our staff, which I’m glad to say we did and, as a result, we were true to our word and not one single member of staff at the airport authority lost their job.”
The airport also did its best to help save the jobs of staff at DFW’s over 200 retail and F&B outlets and at other concessionaires by writing off over $70 million in rent.
Another example of DFW doing things differently to other airports is that unlike most it decided to carry on with a handful of major capital development projects, which Ackerman states “kept Texans employed” and allowed for their rapid completion as work was carried out on them during times when construction normally couldn’t take place due to aviation activity.
For a US state so long associated with the oil and gas industries, it may come as a surprise to learn that DFW is one of the US’s most proactive airports in terms of its sustainability goals and ambition to become a net-zero carbon emissions gateway by 2030.
Indeed, Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport has already achieved Level 4+ ‘Transition’ status in ACI’s Airport Carbon Accreditation programme and is actively working on ways of further reducing its carbon footprint.
Ackerman notes that the airport already uses wind power to provide 100% of the electricity to its terminal buildings.
“A year ago at COP26 in Glasgow, our CEO pledged that we would be net-zero by 2030, that’s 20 years ahead of aviation’s 2050 goal, and he wouldn’t have made that promise if we couldn’t do it,” says Ackerman.
“We have already reduced our CO2 emissions from the 2010 baseline by 80%. What we need to do now to eliminate most of the remaining 20% is replace our aging natural gas fueled Central Utilities Plant with a new clean electricity powered Central Utility Plant [eCUP] and phase out all of the petrol and diesel powered vehicles used on-site.
“When the new eCUP is up and running, the existing facility will serve as a back up to the new one, which will significantly increase the resiliency of the airport as well as take out one of our last big chunks of carbon.”
DFW is certainly no stranger to adopting innovative solutions when it comes to waste management and other sustainability issues, back in 2020 revealing that its environmental efforts included turning used cooking oil from its F&B outlets into sustainable aviation fuel (SAF).
The initiative is conducted in partnership with Mahoney Environmental and Neste, with the former collecting, treating and providing the used cooking oil to Neste, which in turn converts it into renewable diesel or sustainable aviation fuel that is fully compatible with existing engines and infrastructure.
So, in one way or another, fuel of some description is still making headline news in Dallas!