Not Your Dad's Aviation Biz

Aug. 4, 2006
Having just completed my fourth decade in the aviation industry, I would like to offer some insights that I've gleaned while shuttling from jetway to boardroom.

In looking back at his stellar aviation career, legendary test pilot Chuck Yeager declared simply, "I've had a ball." Having just completed my fourth decade in the aviation industry, I would like to offer some insights that I've gleaned while shuttling from jetway to boardroom, from JFK International to Ataturk International Airports, and from peer review to peer review.

First things first: This is most definitely not your father's aviation industry. While some elements are immutable — planes fly, pilots fly them, and people on the ground run the whole complicated show — the airline industry continues to change at a phenomenally rapid pace.

Think about it. As little as ten years ago there were virtually no regional jets and only a handful of low-cost carriers; the term "legacy carriers" hadn't even been coined yet. There were no fast-traveling diseases like SARS to worry about; security no-fly lists were unheard of; fuel did not require a third mortgage to purchase; and airline food was something you perhaps ate, and certainly complained about, but not something you paid for or brought aboard yourself. Welcome to the ever-changing new "normal" that is our aviation industry.

The intent here is not to paint a bleak picture of today's industry; that's not how I see it. In fact, if you put aside the current out-of-joint fuel costs, today's aviation industry is more profitable, efficient, safe, and effective than it has ever been before. And that should be noted and applauded. Industry professionals have worked diligently to make it so. And they have been doing quite a bit more lately to keep the industry moving forward. For example, consider airport access.

Airport Initiatives

Airports are increasingly accessible by mass transit. From Munich International to New York's JFK to London's Heathrow to Tokyo's Narita International Airport, passengers now have greater transit options for getting to and from airports. That is remarkable, especially when you consider that for many years it was a distant thought at best.

Unfortunately, today when people get to the airport, especially in the United States, they're going to find they are definitely not alone, and that they have plenty of time to meet other travelers.

Planes are fuller than they've ever been. According to the Air Transport Association, the average load factor for the U.S. airline industry last year rose to 77 percent. Load factors haven't been that high since World War II placed its massive demands on aviation.

Today, some major airlines are running load factors in the 80–85 percent range. So there are more people on planes than ever before, even though airlines are flying 4 percent fewer flights. Layer security requirements on top of that passenger load, however, and it all adds up to congestion.

Now, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has worked diligently to shore up aviation security. But the hard facts of sheer volume still mean considerable delays for passengers at American airports. People have returned to the skies in droves, but to get to the skies, they must all pass through magnetometers first. And that takes time, no matter how you do it. Of course, TSA and airlines are doing everything they can to expedite the process while maintaining a secure environment.

Other Industry Innovations

To that end, we're seeing innovative approaches to every aspect of the process, from ticketing to boarding to security.

To speed boarding, airlines are trying virtually everything they can think of, including random boarding, back-to-front seating, window seating first, and even dual and triple loading bridges. Triple bridges are already in place internationally to handle the Airbus A380 when it starts commercial service. The one drawback that the Canadian airports have seen with the advent of dual bridges is that, instead of passenger boarding being the holdup, the loading of hold baggage has become the pacing item in aircraft turn times.

Ticketing is also changing. According to the International Air Transport Association (IATA), almost one out of every two airline tickets issued is electronic. With electronic tickets costing $1 to issue and paper tickets costing $10, IATA estimates that the industry could save more than $3 billion by phasing out paper. And they expect paper tickets to disappear completely by 2007.

Anyone who has been to an airport recently has seen the progress the TSA is making in terms of speed and security. Recognizing that terror is not a static concern, TSA continues to enhance security through innovation. From cargo testing to puffer machines to explosive-detection tests for carry-on luggage to getting large detection equipment out of the lobby, the TSA is working to heighten security and throughput at the same time.

Airlines have shifted their paradigm as well. For example, fuel has traditionally been just a routine cost, a figure that had to be factored in and paid. Now they're treating it as an expense that must be managed, like any other variable expense.

Airlines are developing strategic energy plans for incorporation into their operating and business plans. They are also considering alternative fuels for support vehicles, and a host of other advanced strategies to optimize efficiency. And while they're working hard to reduce costs, airports and airlines are also seeking new ways of generating revenue.

More and more airports are following the British Airports Authority model of the airport as mall, bringing high-quality retail outlets to airports to attract nonflying consumers. There's a renewed emphasis around the world on revenue-generating commercial activity. Both Italian and British airports boast new levels of indoor and outdoor airport advertisements that add revenue. Because of that added value, airports here are considering the same approach. But the strategies do not begin and end with the customer interface.

More and more airports are seeking nontraditional ways of delivering their construction projects, exploring such options as design-build, guaranteed maximum price (GMP) projects, and other public-private partnerships. As recently as ten or 20 years ago, these protocols were rarely even considered.

Airports are also going through a process of self-examination to discover potential revenue streams that are inherent to their physical design. At DFW International Airport, they're planning the exploration of a gas well on the airport grounds. Once in place, DFW projects this will be one of its highest sources of revenue. A few U.S. airports like Denver and Tulsa already have oil or gas wells and generate millions of dollars each year in revenue.

Some airports now boast golf courses on their grounds. You can find them in Fiji, Auckland, and Abu Dhabi. For whatever reason, golfers do not seem to mind jet noise as much as homeowners do . . .

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Having watched the world of aviation evolve over a number of years, I would say that one overriding theme is emerging. Everyone involved in the industry, from operations to maintenance to security to support, seems to be asking the same question: How can we do it better? After 40 years in the aviation industry, I've got to say that is one of the most hopeful and inspiring developments I've seen.