Angela Gittens, Director General of Airports Council International (ACI) World, says the aviation community is entering a new phase of life
The outgoing Director General of the ACI Angela Gittens would have relished helping restart the industry post-COVID-19.
How badly has the coronavirus pandemic affected the airport community?
It has been devastating. We haven’t seen anything like it before. In April, ACI forecast a 3.3 billion reduction in passenger numbers, as measured by our figures, leading to a $76 billion shortfall in revenue. Just a month later, we estimate passenger numbers will be down 4.6 billion and airports will lose $97 billion.
It is a significant change. And it gives you a sense of just how fast and how far the industry has fallen. We are still in the tunnel and we can’t see the light at the end yet. The situation is bleak.
Small airports in particular are in huge trouble. Some will have lost all traffic and it’s likely to be a long time before flights land at such facilities even when the industry restarts.
What do you think will be the lessons learned from this crisis?
Obviously, we need to improve resilience. That was being worked on anyway and I think operators know what they need to do. Airports need to have stronger balance sheets because the loss of an airport can have terrible consequences for a community.
Aviation also needs to think about the relationships it has with other expert bodies. We have been engaging with health authorities on COVID-19 but what other relationships do we need to cultivate to be prepared for other potential problems in the future? We need to understand what others can offer and in turn help them to understand the aviation industry.
It is important for regulators to learn lessons too. The emphasis was on keeping airports lean and mean with a just-in-time approach. But there needs to be a change in strategy. Though you hope never to see such a crisis again, you have to plan for it. We need greater reserves in future.
How will airport management change as the industry restarts?
Travel will be a different experience. Social distancing won’t be possible at many airports—they would run out of capacity pretty quickly if we had to enforce that. Masks are one way to help with that and so masks will be commonplace for air travel until a vaccine is found.
There will be changes in hygiene regimes too. Surfaces will have to be disinfected regularly. More attention will have to be paid to air filtration and its maintenance. And we will have to look at how and whether we reuse items.
For those staff that are in direct contact with customers, airports will need to supply personal protective equipment and the right training. How do you deal with customers that need wheelchair assistance throughout the airport, for example? [They are] likely to be elderly or vulnerable and you must ensure their safety and the safety of staff.
On top of this, touchless processing will come to the fore. Face recognition technology may well dominate in future. That could mean a huge cost even though the investment in fingerprint technology has not yet had time to deliver a return.
So, costs will escalate, and revenues will continue to be low. The question is how long these changes will last. Are we witnessing a permanent change in customer behavior and the travel process? Nobody can answer that with any confidence right now.
Though you hope never to see such a crisis again, you have to plan for it. We need greater reserves in future
Are you happy to be stepping down at this time or would you have welcomed the challenge of restarting the industry?
Definitely the latter! I feel bad to be leaving the industry that I love and that has been so good to me when it is in a moment of real need. The consolation is that I have a great successor, Luis Felipe de Oliveira. He has the right background, incredible energy, and I know I am leaving the airport community and aviation in good hands.
How can the airline-airport relationship be improved and what are the main points of contention?
I hope the airline-airport relationship has matured during my 12 years in charge. In the
old days, so many of the entities were public companies and governments managed the relationships according to their needs at the time.
Slowly, a business outlook took hold and where companies remained in public hands they at least had to be self-sufficient and not a drain on the taxpayer. All relationships moved on to a commercial footing and it became time for our parents to step aside. Of course, some parents won’t let go but I think we’re getting there.
This crisis will help us grow up even more. It has emphasized how we all need each other, airlines, airports, and air navigation service providers.
Charges will continue to be a difficult subject. Costs are going up for all of us and revenue will be scarce for some time yet. The solution though is simple: talk. What neither side will want is a surprise.
What more can the industry do to encourage diversity and is there a danger the issue will lose momentum given the circumstances?
Topics like diversity will become even more critical to the future of the industry.
We will see even more innovative solutions as the industry adapts and offers a new customer experience. Customer interaction will be totally different. That means different skills will be needed and that will encourage diversity.
What was the highlight of your time in charge?
The highlight has to be how ACI is helping its members and creating a sense of community. Our Airport Excellence program is about airports helping airports to improve safety, for example. Every airport has something to learn and every airport has something to teach. You can’t have just one airport, so our members understand that they need each other to thrive to create a network that appeals to airlines and travelers.
Airport Excellence now tackles security as well. There is nothing better than having an idea that works well enough for people to ask for more. The enthusiasm of members to help each other makes me very proud.
April: 3.3 billion reduction in passenger numbers, $76bn shortfall in revenue
May: 4.6 billion reduction in passenger numbers, airports will lose $97bn
Who has been the biggest influence on your career or strategies?
Lou Turpen, the former CEO of Greater Toronto Airport Authority and San Francisco Airports Commission. He taught me about leadership. I love to get involved and do things. But Lou once deliberately gave me so much work that he forced me to delegate. That changed my whole attitude and taught me how to be an executive.
Any final words of wisdom for the industry?
Don’t be trapped by the past. The old days are gone and we have to act like adults. For airlines and airports, the biggest problems will be external. We will only overcome them by working together.
We will have our differences, but these can be sorted out internally. What is really important is presenting a united face to external challenges. Anything other than that weakens us all.
In brief… Angela Gittens
2008 Angela Gittens begins tenure as Director General of Airports Council International
June 2020 Succeeded by Luis Felipe de Oliveira, ALTA’s Executive Director & CEO
“The highlight has to be how ACI is helping its members and creating a sense of community. Our Airport Excellence program is about airports helping airports to improve safety, for example … Airport Excellence now tackles security as well. There is nothing better than having an idea that works well enough for people to ask for more. The enthusiasm of members to help each other makes me very proud”