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Joe Bates looks back at some of the highlights of ACI Asia-Pacific’s Regional Assembly, Conference and Exhibition in Doha.

Qatar’s famed hospitality proved as warm as the temperatures outside throughout a memorable 12th ACI Asia-Pacific Regional Assembly, Conference and Exhibition in Doha.

For 400 delegates representing 175 organisations from 54 countries across the globe, the conference is the region’s main airport event of the year and, as usual, it didn’t disappoint with lots to learn and take on board.

Indeed, this year’s event included a pre-conference ‘Aviation Talks’ summit, which opened with a panel discussion about the ambitious development plans for a number of airports and countries across the Middle East.

The panel – moderated with a smile by Waleed Youssef, KPI Aviation Marketing Solutions’ airport strategy and privatisation director – included Bahrain International Airport Company’s CEO, Mohamed Al-Binfalah; Abu Dhabi Airport Company’s acting chief commercial officer, Daniel Cappell; Dr Hamdi Chouk, former director general of the Lebanese Civil Aviation Authority; and King Fahd International Airport’s director general, Turki Abdullah Aljawini.

Bahrain’s Al-Binfalah revealed that his airport is in the middle of a $1.2 billion development programme to “add a few new assets” that include a state-of-the-art terminal capable of handling up to 14 million passengers annually, an on-site jet fuel depot, new MRO hangar for Gulf Air and a 2,700-vehicle capacity multi-storey car park.

Spelling out why the terminal is needed, he said: “The last development of the airport terminal was back in 1994 to raise the airport’s capacity to four million passengers per annum. There has been no investment since, and it is much needed, as we have been processing around nine million passengers annually for quite some time.”

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When it opens in mid-2019, the new 210,000sqm terminal will be four times the size of the existing facility, explained Al-Binfalah, who revealed that the overall cost of the airport’s upgrade is being co-funded by Abu Dhabi Development Fund and the government of Bahrain.

King Fahd International Airport’s Aljawini was quick to point out that his airport is one of many in Saudi Arabia to be either in the middle of an upgrade or due one under ambitious development plans for the country’s airport system.

He explained that the General Authority of Civil Aviation (GACA) had essentially run the nation’s airports since its creation in 1935 and that today the system comprises 27 airports that between them handled 709,000 flights and 85.3 million passengers in 2016.

These airports include the international gateways of Jeddah, Riyadh, Dammam, Ta’if and Medinah, however, with passenger numbers growing by 10% per annum, more capacity is needed to ensure that the Kingdom is equipped to meet future demand.

The government’s response, revealed Aljawini, has been to plan the development of four new airports (Al-Qunfudah, Farasan Island, Riyadh North and Riyadh South) and draft a new five-year business plan for aviation.

In line with this, he stated, GACA has started the “corporatisation” programme of the Kingdom’s airports and other business units in readiness for their possible future privatisation.

GACA also plans transforming some regional airports into regional hubs to feed traffic to the smaller domestic airports in a bid to improve connectivity across Saudi Arabia. Ha’il and Abha are the country’s first newly established regional hub served by Nesma Airlines and flynas respectively.

In terms of new infrastructure at existing airports, he told delegates that Riyadh’s King Khalid International Airport has a newly opened domestic terminal – the 12mppa capacity Terminal 5 – and plans to upgrade existing terminals 1, 2, 3 and 4 by 2019 to enable them to handle 24 million international passengers yearly between them.

Elsewhere, Jeddah–King Abdulaziz International Airport expects to open the first 30mppa phase of its new terminal in 2018, while new terminals are also being built in Abha and Arar by the end of 2018 and Jizan by 2020.

Abu Dhabi’s Cappell talked about his gateway’s new Midfield Terminal, which he described as “the most exciting, innovative airport development in the world today.”

In doing so he also reflected on Abu Dhabi International Airport’s past, reminding delegates just how far it, Abu Dhabi and the United Arab Emirates has come since the nation was born 46 years ago.

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He noted: “Fifty years ago it would have been impossible to travel to Dubai in one day. Today, it takes just over an hour. In 1960, the population of Abu Dhabi was 25,000. Today it is over 1.75 million. And finally, 50 years ago, Abu Dhabi Island could only be reached at low tide.

“Our traffic has grown from 4.5 million passengers in 2002 when Gulf Airlines was the main carrier to 20 million in 2014, with a forecast of 24 million in 2017. Today’s growth is being driven by Etihad Airways, the national flag carrier of Abu Dhabi and the fastest growing airline in the history of aviation.

“The pace of development has been astounding and it continues with the Midfield Terminal, which is the largest infrastructure project in the country and will be home to Etihad Airways and its partner airlines when it opens in 2019.

“Our goal is to take the airport commercial proposition to a new level in respect of design, fit out, customer service and experience.”

The second session of the day was 100% concentrated on Doha’s Hamad International Airport, where Jan Metsovitis (VP operations); Michael McMillan (VP facility management); and Suhail Kadri (VP information technology) discussed the gateway’s commitment to innovation and best practice in each of their respective fields.

An Airport Carbon Accreditation Workshop was also on the agenda during the mini-event, which concluded with the Welcome Reception for the Regional Assembly, Conference & Exhibition and the official opening of the exhibition area, which this year boasted 50 booths occupied by 25 exhibitors.

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ACI Asia-Pacific’s 12th annual conference got underway properly on Tuesday, April 11, with an opening address from president and managing director and CEO of Sydney Airport, Kerrie Mather.

She praised Hamad International Airport’s commitment to sustainable development. It recently gained Level 3 certification in ACI’s Airport Carbon Accreditation programme and has introduced collaborative decision-making (CDM) to optimise the management of the airport, but Mather noted that it was far from alone in its efforts.

“Airports across Asia-Pacific, the world’s fastest growing aviation market, continue to invest and expand their facilities to meet demand while continuing to deliver a world class experience,” enthused Mather.

“Air passenger numbers in Asia-Pacific and the Middle East grew by 9% and 9.4% respectively in 2016, well ahead of the global average of 5.5%, and to cater for this surge investments are required.

“The total applied capital expenditure of airports worldwide in February this year amounted to almost one trillion US dollars, of which $410 million will be spent in Asia-Pacific. This isn’t surprising given the growth of the region.”

She noted that Sydney Airport’s A$2 billion investment programme – which currently involves over 200 construction projects – is driving a “step change in its operations and transforming the end-to-end passenger experience”.

Major airport development projects highlighted by Mather included China’s commitment to building 136 new airports by 2025, raising the number of commercial gateways in the country to 370; India stating that it wants its airport count to double by 2019; and Malaysia Airports unveiling plans to spend $1 billion over the next five years on refurbishing and expanding its airports.

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While in the Middle East, where passenger traffic is expected to double by 2035, she reminded all those in attendance that the Gulf Cooperation Council has pledged $100 billion towards airport expansion and construction projects.

“These are phenomenal numbers by any measure,” enthused Mather, noting that an ever-increasing number of governments across the region were turning to the private sector to help fund airport development projects.

“Many governments in our region are recognising that private participation can play an important role in developing and upgrading strategic airport infrastructure and in airport privatisations,” she told delegates.

Another source of funding could also come from the newly formed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which is expected to raise its lending power by $100 billion by increasing its membership to another 25 countries.

She ended by revealing that the ongoing security challenges facing the world’s airports meant that ACI Asia-Pacific was going to pass a resolution calling for the region’s airports to take “practical and common sense approaches” to improving landside security.

Next up was the Leader’s Forum where six CEOs, including Mather, took part in a panel discussion about ‘What defines a best airport’, moderated by John Defterios, CNNMoney’s Abu Dhabi-based emerging markets editor.

She was joined on stage for the session by Hamad International Airport’s Badr Mohammed Al-Meer; Hong Kong International Airport’s Fred Lam; London City Airport’s Declan Collier; Quito International Airport’s Andrew O’Brian; and Toronto Pearson’s Howard Eng for a wide-ranging debate that covered everything from the gathering and use of data, customer service, and security challenges to corporate social responsibility (CSR).

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On the issue of data, London City Airport’s Collier said: “In the old days, engineering was a big piece of what airports did, we managed large chunks of concrete. What we are increasingly doing today, is managing data, so we are always looking for people who can analyse the data and point us in the right direction.”

Talking about customer service, Hamad’s Al-Meer told delegates that everything his airport does is geared towards improving the passenger experience, with the emphasis strongly focused on being proactive rather than reactive.

He said that knowledge of its customers allowed Hamad to tailor very different services to different customers with different needs, citing the fact that while some passengers needed immediate and constant help and attention, others did not and preferred little or no human interaction during their time at the gateway.

“The type of information we have from all our stakeholders, which includes the airlines, the ground handlers and government agencies, makes this possible,” explained Al-Meer, noting that the airport would shortly begin the next phase of its expansion programme despite only being open three years.

The mega expansion, as he put it, would provide around 15,000 new jobs and create the capacity for the future expansion of fast growing national flag carrier, Eithad Airways.

Quito’s O’Brian said that despite some big differences in the challenges and opportunities faced by airports across the world, one challenge that they all faced was that of meeting growing passenger expectations and the desire for a seamless travel experience.

“The customer wants a pain free experience,” he said. “They expect certain levels of security, services and commercial offerings – and they want free Wi-Fi – as they see these services being offered at other airports around the world.

“Initiatives like ACI’s Airport Service Quality (ASQ) is an excellent customer service programme that helps us benchmark ourselves against other airports in our region and around the world. It helps us understand where we fit, in an international context, and how well we are doing.”

On the topic of social media, London City Airport’s Collier said it was part of his “daily existence as an airport CEO”, so much so in fact that for a year the gateway displayed “live chatter” from passengers about their airport experience on digital screens throughout the airport.

He said doing this allowed airport staff to start a live conversation with passengers and, as a result, customer satisfaction levels “skyrocketed”.

Hong Kong’s Lam echoed Collier’s comments about the importance of social media for communicating with customers, although he warned that failing to respond quickly enough to some tweets could turn a minor issue into a major one that might go on for weeks and months.

“By responding quickly, I mean within minutes or hours and certainly not days as, unfortunately, young people today tend to believe what they read or see on social media and bad perceptions can be damaging,” said Lam.

Corporate social responsibility initiatives undertaken by their respective airports varied from Hong Kong International Airport’s opening of its own childcare centre to encourage young mums to work there and efforts to attract staff from underprivileged backgrounds, to Sydney’s charity work and Corporacíon Quiport’s decision to join the Inter-American Development Bank’s ‘Shared Value’ programme, which has led to it going into business with a host of small and medium size enterprises from the local community.

A special address by Mohamed Khalifa Rahma from ICAO’s Middle East office followed and then ‘Organisational succession planning to meet future challenges’ came under the microscope in a session moderated by ADK International’s CEO, Jaap Hoekstra.

The three keynote speakers for the session were Aimen Al Hosni, CEO of Oman Airports Management Company (OAMC); Tan Sri Bashir Ahmad Abdul Majid, former president of ACI Asia-Pacific and advisor to Malaysia Airports; and Dr Hamdi Chouk, chairman of the board of Aviation Minds.

OAMC’s Al Hosni commented: “People matter, and are always important, because you can build state-of-the-art facilities and huge infrastructure, but who manages it? It’s people, so you really need to make sure that your people are ready and capable of managing these facilities.

“People talk a lot about making their customer’s happy, and rightly so, but I think we should be saying make your staff happy, because you will get better results if you do, as they will make your customers even happier.”

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He revealed that the prize for OAMC’s ‘Employee of the Month’ wasn’t cash or a gift, but the chance to spend a full-day with him and experience first hand what it is like to run the country’s biggest airport.

“I would encourage all of you to do the same,” said Al Hosni, who used the example of one employee who sat with him from 7.30am until 5pm in the afternoon as an example of why the initiative works.

“He was with me throughout the day and never left my side. He was even with me when I called my wife,” he said. “He was exposed to everything, so when I asked him what he had learned at the end of the day, he said he it was hectic job, and he didn’t want it!

“He will now go back to the workplace and be an ambassador for the company by telling them this is how things are working and that they could get there by being strong and working hard.”

Tan Sri Bashir noted that in terms of succession planning, “recruiting the right person, for the right position, at the right time” is crucial, as is keeping them happy, challenged and motivated.

“Succession planning is not just about promoting the next guy in the line,” he said. “It is about finding and developing talent and that involves putting them in the right place, because if you don’t, they will be unhappy, they won’t be interested in development and they will not move up.”

The conference part of Day 1 ended with a fascinating debate on ‘Landside security and crisis communication’ and included Brussels Airport’s head of corporate communications, Nathalie Van Impe, who talked about last year’s horrific terrorist attack on her airport and how operator, Brussels Airport Company, and all staff across the gateway coped in the immediate aftermath of the March 22, 2016 attack, and over the last year.

Summing up, Van Impe, said: “We saw the worst of mankind and the best of mankind on the day and in the weeks and months that followed the attack, and I choose to remember the latter.”

Vince Scanlon, Adelaide Airport’s executive general manager of planning and infrastructure, and Arup’s associate director, Mark Turner, who spoke more generally about aviation’s crisis management efforts, joined her on stage.

ACI Asia-Pacific’s Regional Assembly followed before an action packed first day ended with a Gala Dinner at the nearby Marsa Malaz Kempinski, The Pearl – Doha.

‘Why airports should be bothered with corporate social responsibility?’ and ‘Airport planning and airport cities’ shared the spotlight in the morning of the second day of the conference.

In the CSR session, moderated by KPI Marketing’s managing director, George Karamanos, representatives from Cambodia Airports (Eric Delobel, CEO); Brisbane Airport Corporation (Wendy Weir, environment and sustainability manager); and Sustainability to Action (Sandra Anani, director) explained more about their respective organisation’s CSR philosophies and strategies.

Cambodia Airports’ Delobel revealed that the motto of the VINCI Group is “real success is the success we share”, and, this alone ensured that ‘local integration’ has been key for the company since it started work in Cambodia 20 years ago.

As a result of this philosophy, 99% of Cambodia Airports’ 1,600 staff are Cambodian nationals, and it has launched a number of CSR initiatives. They include a commitment to the sustainable growth of its airports; opening a VINCI Training Academy and extending its influence beyond the perimeter fence through supporting archaeological research at Siem Reap and backing Artisans Angkor, a Cambodian social business that has created 1,300 jobs at 48 workshops in Siem Reap that specialise in traditional Khmer craftsmanship such as silk painting, stone and wood carving.

Brisbane Airport’s Weir provided a “snapshot” of CSR initiatives underway at her gateway and stated that airports across the globe should be proud of their efforts and achievements in this area.

Her airport’s CSR efforts included voluntarily publishing its first Sustainability Report under the GRI framework last year “to show the world what we do well, but also what we need to improve on”; community engagement programmes to inform and educate people about the airport’s expansion projects; developing a reconciliation plan with the local indigenous people; and donations to charity groups in the local community.

A global panel comprising Moscow Domodedovo’s deputy airport director, Daniel Burkard; ADP Ingénierie’s business director, Nicolas Deviller; Henan Airport Group’s vice president and aviation marketing director, Shuxia Kang, discussed their own respective development plans during the ‘Airport planning and airport cities’ discussion.

The final session of the conference involved a lively debate on ‘Enhancing customer service with innovative technology’, where a panel comprising Arup’s James Creegan; Tokyo Narita Airport’s Hideharu Miyamoto; Hamad’s Jan Metsovitis; Vancouver International Airport’s Chris Gilliland; and IATA’s Vinoop Goel discussed some of the latest technological advances and their impact on air travel.

Moderator, ACI World’s director of customer experience and technology, Antoine Rostworowski, asked: “Does more self service mean a better service and a better experience? I tend to think that it does because the key objective is innovation to provide better customisation and a more personalised service to passengers.

“It’s all about choice. Those that want a fast track service can use all these new technologies and self-service devices while those that want to see an agent can go and see one who will have more time to deal with them.”

The conference closed with a farewell reception hosted by next year’s host, Tokyo’s Narita Airport. See you in Japan next April!

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