Simpson Bay:--- A high-powered delegation of the Princess Juliana International Airport (SXM), led by managing director Regina LaBega returned to the island last week after attending the 11th annual Airport Cities World Conference & Exhibition held recently in Johannesburg, South Africa.
The SXM delegation included Mirto Breell, Director of Technical Division, Anastacio Baker, Manager of Quality Assurance, and Kalifa Hickinson, Head of Corporate Communications. It was the first time the conference would be held on African soil.
Over 700 delegates from 45 countries representing more than 100 airports or airport authorities attended the three-day conference, which featured a jam-packed program that began with a foundation level and advanced level master class, conducted by Conference Chair, Professor John Kasarda, Director of the Center for Air Commerce at the University of North Carolina.
The SXM delegation attended each master class, which provided a full overview of airport city or "aerotropolis" development as well as the processes and strategic guidelines for planning, designing and developing a successful airport city.
LaBega had articulated the vision of transforming SXM into an airport city at the beginning of her tenure and the South Africa conference, hosted by the city of Ekurhuleni (home of Oliver R. Tambo International Airport, recently voted among the best three airports in Africa), confirmed that this was in line with world trends in airport development.
"Airports are not just transportation infrastructure. They are multimodal, multifunctional enterprises generating considerable commercial development. Airports are now cities themselves," stressed Prof. Kasarda. He added: "airport planning must include just as much emphasis on commercial strategies as aeronautical strategies. There should be synergies between the two."
"This is in fact the direction we have embarked on at SXM," explained LaBega. "It was most gratifying to note at this world conference that we are indeed on the right track with our new strategy of developing non-aeronautical revenues, focusing on the hub function of our airport and looking ahead to the next level of making SXM an airport city or aerotropolis to use the term revived by Prof. Kasarda."
An "aerotropolis" is simply defined as an airport based economic region – a scenario where the global meets the local – with the airport city as the core of the aerotropolis.
The general idea of the airport city/aerotropolis is to foster an environment where one can shop, eat, do business and be entertained all within no more than 15 minutes from the terminal building.
Airports are indeed becoming business centers as evidenced by KPMG moving its European headquarters from London to Frankfurt Airport just because the new location provided a mere 6-minute walk to the international check-in counters.
One recurrent theme at the conference was connectivity as the engine of economic growth. Prof. Kasarda called air travel a "Physical Internet" with over 53,000 routes worldwide. According to him, airports are the routers of this physical internet. He said on a global level, "hub airports, as such, are business magnets and regional economic advancers."
In his own presentation, the Mayor of Denver, Michael B. Hancock, stressed the importance of global connectivity and global competitiveness. "Connectivity is the engine of progress," he said. Denver International Airport (DIA), though only 18 years old, is now the 13th busiest in the world and fifth busiest in the US.
But the grandfather of airport cities is Schiphol, which was just voted the third best airport in the world. It was an airport city even before the term was coined.
Schiphol features shopping arcades, Internet cafes, theme restaurants, businesses such as Unilever, Microsoft, Solomon Brothers, etc. "Though SXM is small in comparison, there is much we can learn from what airports are doing globally that can further solidify SXM's position as a leading, world class international airport in the Caribbean region," LaBega said.
Airports are now destinations in and of themselves, as the South Africa conference revealed. Airports are now taking on their own brands, and developing a unique "brand image." SXM just a few months ago unveiled its new brand. "This shows we are progressive, forward-thinking and right on the mark," remarked Kalifa Hickinson.
Non-aeronautical revenue is very important for the competitiveness of an airport, the conference stressed. Airports should keep aeronautical costs down and grow non-aeronautical revenue to provide funding for expansions, etc. "This is exactly what we have embarked on at SXM with our new retail strategy, which is expected to be implemented by the fourth quarter of 2013," Hickinson said.
According to Prof. Kasarda, "Airlines service a market, not an airport." Airlines are most concerned with making a profit by filling their seats.
However, airlines, airports and the region are all functionally interdependent stakeholders of an aerotropolis. Cities don't compete against one another; regions do, Prof. Kasarda said. "We must compete as a region on a global stage," he added.
Cooperation, collaboration and communication with all our stakeholders were emphasized at the conference. "This is the goal we have been pursuing and will continue to pursue at SXM," LaBega said.
The next conference will be held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia next year when for the first time, the "Airport Cities Excellence Awards" will be granted to recognize industry leaders and acknowledge those successful airport cities that have changed the face of aviation across the globe.