3 Crucial Challenges for Airports, Aviation & the Economy

Mark Reis

As I end almost two decades at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport - including 11 years at the helm - I reflect on three challenges that will shape the future of airports, aviation and the economy. The first is evolutionary and the second is redefining the U.S. airport system. But the third demands a revolution and, in fact, may be an existential threat to aviation.

Personal Technology

A few years ago, a keynote speaker at an Airports Council International annual meeting, smartphone in hand, implored his audience to consider how these tiny screens and the massive data they channel affect our industry. We must, he noted, design and build airports knowing that customers will navigate our terminals via their smartphones, not traditional signage or interacting with staff.

Mark Reis, managing director of Seattle-Tacoma Int'l Airport, has worked for the Port of Seattle since 1988 and was the chair of Airports Council International - North America from 2013 to 2014. In recent years, he has also served on the boards of the Seattle Convention and Visitors Bureau, Woodland Park Zoo and Aviation High School of the Highline School District.

Technology is helping us provide better customer service and accelerate passenger throughput, thereby reducing the cost of accommodating passenger growth. The revolution in self-service passenger check-in demonstrates this. Traditionally, airports built ticket counters, but today, many passengers "process" themselves. Airlines introduced electronic check-in kiosks about 20 years ago; then, self-sufficient travelers began printing their boarding passes at home or the office. Now, smartphone apps allow passengers to check in from anywhere and display electronic boarding passes with a quick tap. 

Google, Microsoft and others are "indoor mapping" airports so smartphone users can find their gates, a cup of coffee or restrooms with their handheld device. Airlines and some airports are similarly updating their apps. If Sea-Tac is any guide, airports cannot add Wi-Fi capacity or electronic beacons fast enough to support the acceleration of personal technology. 

While this trend is fun and intellectually challenging, it is "only" evolutionary. 

Industry Structure

The North American airline industry is healthier than it has been in decades, although some will decry the reasons: burgeoning ancillary fees, corporate consolidation and the "hollowing-out" of airline route structures. Faced with financially healthy foreign carriers, open skies regimes and longer-range aircraft, domestic airlines are growing their major hubs and focusing on their most lucrative customers - at the expense of smaller airports. As service at small airports stagnates or shrinks, it is more difficult for their communities to attract or retain companies competing in our increasingly global economy.

Federal programs established decades ago to mitigate the impact of airlines' market choices on smaller communities are not keeping up with this growing challenge. Congress must recognize that its laissez faire attitude toward airline industry business models has consequences not only for airports but also for many communities and states.

Climate Change

As I write this, world leaders are at the United Nations meeting on climate change in Paris, and the International New York Times' headline states: 'Future of Life' at Stake in Talks. There is optimism that an agreement will be reached that will reduce the growth in Earth's atmospheric temperature to just 6° C, but this is two degrees above what scientists believe is the upper limit to prevent catastrophic impacts.

Aviation is a consequential contributor to greenhouse gases and, thus, climate change. While some argue that aircraft emissions are a relatively small part of the problem, one can make the same argument about almost every source of greenhouse gases. As Earth gets closer to the climatic "point of no return," the aviation industry will have to migrate to biofuels.

Almost every major airline has already undertaken "demonstration" flights powered by alternative fuels. Certification challenges continue, and research on new sources of biofuels - seed crops, woody biomass and municipal solid waste - is underway. Several airlines are close to procuring commercial quantities of biofuels.

These are important early steps, but this work must accelerate. Despite 75% of the American public supporting an enforceable treaty regarding climate change, Congress continues to deny the problem exists. When our politicians finally act, the aviation industry will need to act quickly. Without a fast response, our industry may never look the same.

While airport executives and governing bodies can and are managing the first of these three challenges, they cannot unilaterally control the second or third. However, successfully pushing for action on these vital issues will determine the future of commercial aviation.  

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