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Directors Say Key to Recovery Is Supporting Airport Staff

In the airport space, many issues that were bubbling up prior to the onset of the pandemic were exacerbated by a sudden dearth of business. Now that travel has returned and airports are looking to capitalize on renewed interest, many are wondering how those existing issues will continue to develop. At the 2022 Airport Experience Conference, four airport directors took the stage to discuss these and other factors currently impacting business.

Tom Nolan, president and CEO of Orlando Sanford International Airport (SFB), began by acknowledging that many airport would have struggled to get through the pandemic at all without the assistance of federal funds.

“If it wasn’t for government money, we’d all be selling hot dogs on the corner. It was brutal financially,” he said. Still, he added, the worst has passed and stability will be found in going back to relying on revenue. “We need to get back to the normal way of doing business – through concessions, through parking and everything else, aeronautical and non-aeronautical revenue. I think the sooner we get back to that and get off being nursed by the federal government with the additional money, and return to normal PFC, AIP discretionary entitlement – the better off I think everyone will be.”

Denver International Airport (DEN) CEO Phil Washington agreed, adding that airports need to find common ground and have empathy for their concessions partners. “We’re all in this together, and we have to find a way to make concessions successful,” he said. “One thing that I’ve stressed is these arcane procurement rules that say if you’re missing page 40 of a 45-page proposal we’re going to eliminate you – it’s ridiculous. Things like that that we can say ‘this is not material if you’re missing one page of a document.’ To be deemed non-responsive – we can’t do that. We’re looking at those things that we can do to help concessions to be successful because it’s in all our best interest to have a successful airport.”

At Long Beach Airport (LGB), officials were gearing up for Phase 2 improvements to the facilities when the pandemic struck and changed plans. Still, the airport has managed to press on with the Phase 2 projects thanks to government funding, though on a different schedule than previously anticipated.

“We weren’t able to move forward with some of the Phase 2 work without seeing the positive action and support from our federal government to provide for airports,” said Cynthia Guidry, director of LGB. “That gave us a little bit of confidence that we could move forward on a few things – maybe not get everything completed in the same time frame, but at least move forward on some much-needed improvements.”

Facilities upgrades have certainly been a hot topic for the past two years, as airports of every size struggled to maintain operations at a higher standard of cleanliness with far fewer resources. Staffing is another looming issue, with many airports scrambling to find ways to attract workers at every level.

“The single biggest issue worldwide is labor shortage,” lamented SFB’s Nolan.

Chad Makovsky, director of aviation services for the City of Phoenix, which runs Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport (PHX), said his airport has found a number of creative ways to reach out to the community, such as setting up a table at a local fair to educate people about career opportunities at the airport.

“If you expect these people to just take a bus, take a train, take their own car and show up for your event where you are, I think you’re missing some of that talent,” he said. “Our city council has been very helpful in this as well; they gave us $4 million with the intention that we would turn it into vouchers for childcare, so this spring we’ll be looking to issue childcare vouchers based on need. All they need to do is come work at the airport and we’re going to help them out.

“They’ve given us another million dollars to help with the development of a facility we already own to actually pioneer and pilot an on-airport childcare facility for airport employees,” he added. “That’s for all airport campus employees. We’re really going to be targeting that with the best rates based on economic circumstance.”

LGB’s Guidry supported this endeavor, and added that educating the community about the excitement and viability of a career in aviation would be pivotal to many airports in recruiting long-term employees.

At DEN, Washington said, two big issues for employees are housing and transportation, an obstacle many airport employees around the country can probably relate to.

“A lot of times, your airports are in areas outside of downtown,” he said. “People have to get out there. Ground transportation is an issue with folks getting out to the workplace.

“We’ve got to reach out,” he added. “This is a huge issue. …We have to grow our own in this industry. I’m not ready to throw up my hands and give up on this. I think if we allow opportunities for folks that typically would not work at an airport, that would be a solution.” Ex-offenders, he offered, could be an untapped group hungry for work and willing to spend the extra time commuting on public transportation if the option is there.

Still, airports can help their concessionaire partners in other ways. New and innovative tech is always emerging, especially right now, to alleviate the effects of staffing shortages.

“We recognize how detrimental to everybody the pandemic has been, especially in the private sector,” said SFB’s Nolan. “We could partner a little more – both on the equation of sharing in the success, and more importantly in addressing the paradigm shift in the consumer.”

MAG, of course, continues to be a contentious topic, even among airport leaders. While PHX’s Makovsky said he’s open to the idea of a new mutually beneficial business model, he hasn’t yet seen one that satisfies the needs of all the airport’s stakeholders.

LGB’s Guidry is more open to changing things up.

“We, fortunately, had some flexibility in our agreements… but in general, I would say for the industry as a whole, we absolutely need to think of alternative ways [to do business with concessionaires]. It’s more going to be about who’s the first one out there to have these new agreements. …I think there’s a lot of willingness from airports to tweak agreements moving forward, because now we know – having gone through a pandemic – that there are things we have absolutely no control over that can materialize. So, I think it’s a matter of seeing what happens.”

When the topic turned to the next generation of airport leadership, Guidry mentioned the importance of mentoring and identifying potential in her team. Encouraging workplace development could be pivotal not only for employees, she said, but for the airport’s business partners as well.

“We have a large [general aviation] community, as well,” she said. “They’re doing internships and other things at the airport, so we’re working with them on supporting each other. We have our own programs, but we’re also trying to support our partners in what they’re doing.”

Washington agreed and added that DEN is trying to reach the youngest in the community to get them thinking about a career in aviation early on. “One of the things we’re doing…is building a career pathway in the aviation space, starting with youngsters in middle school and showing them the career pathway all the way to corporate leadership. I think young people have to see what’s possible.” After learning about it in middle school, kids interested in working at DEN have opportunities to pursue internships at both the high school and college levels.

“You have to show young people what it is that they can look forward to in an industry,” he said.

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