Gaining Ground and Flying High: A Look Back on My First Year at ACI-NA

Thursday, January 22, 2015, marked my one year anniversary as president and CEO of ACI-NA.  In that time, I have deepened my appreciation for the complexities of modern air travel.  I have also learned how important ACI-NA’s work is for North American airports to be successful in serving their passengers and communities.  While there is no shortage of challenges, I view them as another opportunity to learn about this wonderful airport industry and to ensure that we are constantly improving the service we provide to our members in both the United States and Canada.

It was very fitting that I spent my one year anniversary meeting with key Canadian and U.S. government officials and industry stakeholders in Ottawa.  During my meetings, we were able to discuss many of the trans-border issues, including security, passenger facilitation, trade, and intergovernmental collaboration, that keep a lot of you up at night.  The meetings were very productive, and we left with action items we will be following up on in the coming months.

While in Ottawa, I was able to perform an “under the hood” tour of Ottawa International Airport.  As I have said before, these tours offer me a valuable education about the difficulties of operating a 21st century airport.  While each airport tour is unique, there is one feature that remains the same.  The airport director is always most proud of something the public never gets to see, like Ottawa’s new baggage handling system.  What Mark and his team have been able to accomplish is truly amazing.

With 38 of these tours now under my belt, I have been able to develop a better understanding of the challenges and opportunities we face together as we advance our aviation system.  I look forward to continuing my tours of North American airports in the coming year.

My big takeaway from my trip to Canada relates to ACI-NA’s role in promoting intergovernmental and industry collaboration across the border.  The U.S. government and the Government of Canada are eager to work together, but many officials have questions as to how they can achieve meaningful progress on initiatives like Beyond the Border.  With strong presence in both national capitals, ACI-NA is well-situated to offer support and expert guidance as the United States and Canada begin to move on to the next phase of Beyond the Border, especially as major policy debates unfold in both countries this year through the review of the Canada Transportation Act and reauthorization of the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

As U.S. President Barack Obama said in his recent State of the Union address, “21st century businesses need a 21st century infrastructure.”  I could not agree more.  To that end, your organization is working tirelessly on these important matters because of the long-term impact these issues will have on airport operations for years to come.  The Canadian Policy Board, through the Canadian Airports Council, has just submitted policy recommendations on the review of the Canada Transportation Act.  ACI-NA’s U.S. Policy Board continues the steady drumbeat on airport priorities as part of FAA reauthorization discussion in Congress.  ACI-NA continues to build its visibility on both of these fronts.

Outside of the policy arena, challenges continue to mount before the industry, and ACI-NA is ready to help our members confront these obstacles.  Just a few months ago, more than 45 percent of responding airport directors told us air service development was the single biggest challenge facing North American airports.  More than 40 percent of airport directors said air service will continue to be challenging over the next five years.  As such, ACI-NA is responding to member needs.

In June, ACI-NA will launch our re-imagined JumpStart® Air Service Development Conference on June 1 – 3, 2015, in Seattle, WA, as a stand-alone networking event designed to bring airports and airlines together.  Planning has already started, and I assure you this year’s conference will be unlike any other air service development conference available.  Our Small Airports Committee will also be able to meet together during this conference to discuss issues unique to their airports while still having access to recruit new airline partners.

As an association, we must continually provide the most up to date information to ensure our members are able to stay ahead of tomorrow’s challenges.  Our brand-new Business of Airports Conference, set to be held April 20 – 22, 2015, in Phoenix, AZ, does just that.  By bringing three conferences together – commercial management, finance, and human resources – we are able to reduce organizational silos and empower airport leaders to make smart, strategic decisions about non-aeronautical revenue and talent management.

Other upcoming conferences of note include the ACI-NA/AAAE Spring Legislative Conference in Washington, D.C., on March 3 – 4, the Security, Operations, Environmental, and Business Information Technology Conferences in Vancouver, BC, on March 22 – 25, and the biennial Airports Canada Conference and Exhibition in Vancouver, BC, on March 25 – 27.  More information can be found at www.aci-na.org.

The immense challenges looming over the horizon require us to maintain a global vision.  We have to be able to adapt to those challenges we might not yet be able to see.  That is where your association can be most impactful, and we are ready for the challenge.  We look forward to providing you additional updates in the coming months.  In the meantime, please feel free to contact me with any questions you might have or if I can be of assistance to you or your respective teams.

Kevin M. Burke
President and CEO
ACI-NA

“Ruff”-ing It in a New World of Airport Customer Service

In my first week at ACI-NA, travel writer Harriet Baskas published an article in USA Today about pet therapy programs in airports. Being new to the airport and aviation industry, I was not familiar with such programs, and the article was an eye-opening experience into the lengths airports will go to provide excellent customer service.

Reno-Tahoe International Airport welcomes attendees to the 2015 ACI-NA Customer Service Seminar.

Reno-Tahoe International Airport welcomes attendees to the 2015 ACI-NA Customer Service Seminar.

ACI-NA’s Customer Service Seminar in Reno, Nevada, has been a great forum for our members to discuss the latest issues and trends in customer service. One member put it best when she said that the objective of customer service is about lowering travel stress. In the golden age of social media, it’s easy for a complaint regarding customer service to go viral. So what are airports doing to lower passengers stress and provide the best possible customer service?

The three "I"s of this year's seminar: imagination, initiative, and innovation.

The three “I”s of this year’s seminar: imagination, initiative, and innovation.

My big takeaway from this week’s conference is that airports work tirelessly to establish enterprise-wide customer service standards that apply not only to airport employees, but also third-party vendors at the airport. In order to achieve this, several airports have launched campaigns to provide everything from extra care to a smile and a compliment to their travelers. During a tour of our conference’s host, Reno-Tahoe International Airport, the airport employees gave conference attendees a first-hand looks at their different efforts to create a worry-free experience for passengers through their #KindnessTakesFlight campaign and volunteer programs.

#KindnessTakesFlight at RNO.

#KindnessTakesFlight at RNO.

In a way, my tour of RNO (I’m also still getting into the swing of airport-code lingo) brought full-circle these beginning months for me at ACI-NA. The centerpiece of #KindnessTakesFlight is the Paws 4 Passengers therapy-dog. Not only was I so excited to meet these four-legged ambassadors, but so were many seasoned airport pros. Flying can be stressful, but airports are embracing creative ways to make the journey seamless for passengers. It’s safe to say that air travel hasn’t totally gone to the dogs.

Mimi Ryals
Communications and Marketing Coordinator
ACI-NA

Customer Service: High-Wires, High Stakes, and Extraordinary Opportunities

Whether you call it the #BlizzardOf2015 or #WinterStormJuno, Monday’s snowstorm along the northeastern states and Maritimes packed a punch, walloping road, rail, and air travel in the U.S. and Canada. But despite thousands of canceled flights, many airports remained open to serve travelers caught in the middle of the snow and their intended destination.

As coincidence would have it, ACI-NA’s 2015 Customer Service Seminar kicks off tomorrow in Reno, Nevada, where many airport customer service professionals will be joining us from around North America to explore best practices and fresh ideas on how to respond to exactly this type of scenario, when an average day becomes extraordinary for both the airport and the travelers it serves. Specifically, our second day’s agenda speaks directly to this, with a session on keeping customers and stakeholders in the loop when irregular operations throws everyone for a loop, followed by a interactive workshop simulating crisis communications. (We’ll have more on both these sessions later in the week.)

But it’s not all high-wires and the high stakes of crises— the other main focus of this year’s seminar is maximizing airport customer service in the moment and for the long term. Both the first and second days’ programming cover a broad spectrum of current trends and creative possibilities for airports to reach their customers throughout all parts of their departures and arrivals home. And our host, Reno-Tahoe International, will have their customer service initiatives in full-swing— such as their popular Paws 4 Passengers program— during the attendee airport tour.

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We’re excited to get the conversation started! As always, follow us here at Centerlines, and on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.

Caroline O’Reilly
Senior Manager, Communications and Marketing
ACI-NA

Removing Barriers to Infrastructure Investment

As do virtually all State of Union addresses, President Obama’s speech Tuesday evening spanned a wide range of themes encompassing both foreign and domestic policies, priorities, and prerogatives.  But if there was unifying thread throughout, it was that 15 years into the 21st century—and six years on from the largest global recession since the Great Depression—the United States is thriving.

One particular aspect that I was very pleased to hear the president mention at several key points was infrastructure:  “21st century businesses need 21st century infrastructure — modern ports, stronger bridges, faster trains and the fastest internet.”  I couldn’t agree more, and it’s easy to see that airports absolutely fit into this conversation.  As we said in our countdown infographic on Tuesday, “Roads, rail, water, and air are what move American opportunity.”  Comprehensively investing in all our modes of transportation, and especially modernizing how we fund this infrastructure, strengthens the backbone of our economy and our global reputation as a country where products, services, and ideas flourish unobstructed.

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But there is one element to the president’s vision regarding infrastructure that, unfortunately, could hamper progress in modernizing our airports.  It relates to an important source of funding for airport capital improvement projects: municipal bonds.

Although not explicitly mentioned in Tuesday’s State of the Union, President Obama has proposed to permit private entities to issue public municipal bonds.  Airports long have been open to idea of increasing opportunities for public-private partnerships—or P3s—as one approach to getting serious about tackling necessary capital improvement projects.

On the other hand, though, President Obama also has called for significantly increasing the cost of municipal bonds for public entities—such as airports—by proposing that tax deductions for municipal bond interest be capped for certain investors.  In short, this would mean that bond investors would then demand a higher rate of return from the bond issuer.  And this, in turn, would make the cost of the infrastructure projects that municipal bonds help fund only more expensive.

The U.S. in 2015 arguably is on far better footing economically than we’ve been in recent years, so it’s incongruous to me that we’d now want to create barriers to investment.  Instead we should be fostering easier market access and local control for airports to finance the new construction and upgrades they’ll need to keep pace with future demand and expectations.  Removing the tax-deduction cap on municipal bonds from his upcoming proposed budget—as well as also removing the Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT) burden from private activity bonds, a form of municipal bonds—would be an exceptionally strong signal from President Obama that he is as optimistic about the future of our airports as I am.

Kevin M. Burke
President and CEO
ACI-NA

State of the Union 2015: A Future for Airports?

Like other industries, the airport community will be closely watching President Barack Obama’s annual State of the Union address tonight.  And while we won’t know for certain what will be in the speech until the president delivers it, we expect our nation’s transportation infrastructure to be a major topic in tonight’s televised and webcast national update from Capitol Hill.

With so many key transportation items on tap for this year, including the solvency of the Highway Trust Fund and reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration, the president would be amiss if he didn’t share his vision for modernizing our aging transportation infrastructure.

As such, we hope the president takes this primetime opportunity to outline his plan to work with Congress on achieving real success for America’s aviation system.  But regardless of what we hear tonight, ACI-NA and our partners aren’t skipping a beat when it comes to keeping the drumbeat going for airport priorities on Capitol Hill.  With the buzzword being that both the House and Senate are seeking to craft a “transformative” FAA reauthorization, our entire commercial aviation system is in play, and absolutely including airports.

To follow ACI-NA’s response in real time this evening, head to twitter.com/airportscouncil beginning at 8:30 p.m. Eastern.

George Kelemen
Senior Vice President, Government and Political Affairs
ACI-NA