Market Development: Recommendations from an airport manager-turned-consultant

By John F. Infanger, Editorial Director

ST. PETERSBURG, FL - Timothy W. Neubert, A.A.E., is president of Tampa-based Neubert Aero Corporation and a consultant on airport development. During the recent annual meeting of the Airport Consultants Council held here in October, Neubert shared some of his thoughts on how airport management can enhance their market development efforts. One key: Using information already gathered.

Neubert, 40, is a former airport manager, having served 15 years at Florence, SC; Binghamton, NY; and Clearwater, FL. He is a graduate of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, with an MBA and a private pilot certificate. Following are edited comments from his interview with AIRPORT BUSINESS magazine.

AIRPORT BUSINESS: You seem to think that airports don’t focus enough outside of their airfield when it comes to development.

Tim Neubert

Neubert: We all know that the airport is a vital part of economic development for a community. Many airports, however, miss the next logical step after they do their master planning. What are their capital projects? How do the projects fit into the future? Where do they want to be in the next five, ten, 15 years? Well, they have the information through the economic impact analysis as part of the master plan, but many times these plans go on the shelf.

They meet the requirement of the feds for getting their AIP [Airport Improvement Program] money, but even that book does not give them the road map or what’s better referred to as a business plan. How does the airport actually look to generate revenue sources over that period – planning for it, marketing for it, getting the stakeholders involved and the community behind the ideas.

Having a corporate business plan that allows an airport to look at all of its stakeholders, looking for alternative revenue sources – traditional and non-traditional, looking at their partners that they may or may not be aware of, such as the Chamber of Commerce and economic development groups. One of the newest resources for an airport of any size is the U.S. Commerce Department and international trade. We know that NAFTA [North American Free Trade Agreement] has been in place for a number of years; it’s just now starting to see the benefits on the local level. Well, that is part of that master planning – the partnerships with the Chamber, economic development, travel and tourism.

AB: Regarding air service development, where do travel banks fit into the plan?

Neubert: Granted, the banking idea for some airports has worked, but I think that’s probably not a long-term solution. You can get companies to put money into a kitty to encourage an airline to fly in, but what happens when the pot of money dries up?

What we try to do is to look beyond today’s issues. A small regional airport or even a general aviation airport conceivably should be looking today at the single-pilot jet aircraft, six-seater solutions that are going to be available in the next three to five years. If you can pay the same price that’s now being discussed for business class and not have to go through terminal security screening, and to be able to go through a local FBO and hop on a taxi service, that’s a pretty good solution. For airports that don’t think they can compete for airline service, there’s another solution.

It gets back to, What’s your plan? Airports are in fact a business and maybe they can partner with another airport. If two airports discover that they have a need for service between the two areas, why can’t those two airports work aggressively to find a carrier on both ends? They both would benefit, and both would be saving money by resourcing and working together to find that solution. It could also work for two FBOs or a franchise of FBOs.

AB: So you’re working with Signature Flight Support, getting them ready for the Eclipse 500?

Neubert: No, but it’s not a crazy idea. I do think that there’s going to be a service provider that will buy a number of the Eclipse aircraft, have the number of pilots, and then look at areas of their biggest return, say 20 different communities in the Southeast and flying back and forth to New York. That will create an opportunity on the other end.

AB: What other types of opportunities do you see out there?

Neubert: I’ve been working with a general aviation airport where they felt their hands were tied because they’re surrounded by prisons. Well, at first glance they might have been. But when you find out that those prisons have the capability of low-profile manufacturing, such as components for computer circuitry or in their case the welding of jet ski trailers, putting together a partnership with the prisons allowed for an end result that the airport now has a new infusion of revenue generated by cargo, which had never been an alternative for them.

AB: Define from an airport’s perspective what a corporate business plan entails.

Neubert: The most important chapter of a business plan is a SWOT analysis – strength, weakness, objectives, threats. Of those components, which are you aware of? Are they something that can be changed? In a business plan you really want to determine what are the economic restraints or factors affecting you as an airport manager.

With a business plan, the biggest benefit for an airport manager is to promote it. There’s nothing worse than a community having the idea that no one has a definitive plan, so it’s a great marketing tool to be able to allow the community to buy in and support future development.