Editor’s Note: Jim, executive director of Austin Bergstrom International Airport (AUS), was named the 2018 Director of the Year, Medium Airports Division, by the editors of Airport Experience News. He will be honored at the Airport Experience Awards, to be held on the final night of the 2019 Airport Experience Conference in Las Vegas.
Most small- and medium-sized airport directors today face challenges relating to retaining routes and growing air service. Not Jim Smith. For 16 of his 18 years as executive director at Austin-Bergstrom International Airport, he’s been overseeing an airport growing so fast that it’s nearly bursting at its seams, while awaiting new gates and dwell space.
Again in 2018, AUS is heading toward a 16 percent increase in passenger traffic that will bring its count beyond 16 million, well beyond capacity for a facility that opened in 1999 with room for about 11 million.
The airport will open a nine-gate expansion in March 2019 that will help, but Smith acknowledges that it’s not enough. “Before it even opens, we’re already beyond the capacity that those nine gates were intended to take us to,” he says. “Obviously the facility is under stress and very crowded.”
But industry and local civic observers say AUS is handling the boom as well as can be expected. And Smith says there are worse problems an airport could encounter. “We know we are very fortunate to be in Austin with a booming economy that shows no signs of slowing down,” he says. “A lot of communities talk about the chicken and the egg thing – do we need a better airport to get the economy going? Here, there’s no doubt about what’s going on. The economy is continuing to grow, and the airport is trying to keep up. It’s an interesting situation, and we realize it’s one of the few in the country that is like this.”
For his leadership in dealing with the capacity problems and his willingness to employ creative strategies as solutions, Smith has been named AXN’s Director of the Year in the Medium Airports category.
Sixteen Years Of Growth
Smith was hired as executive director in early 2001. He got a crash course in airport planning just a few months later, when Sept. 11 terrorist attacks instantly changed the industry.
Luckily for Smith, Sept. 11 and the 2008 economic crisis have been the only periods of contraction during his tenure as director at AUS. The rest of the time, he and his team have been overseeing rapid growth, both in passenger traffic at the airport and in the region’s tourism industry and population. “It’s a lot more fun to manage growth than it is to manage contraction,” he says. Traffic grew nearly 60 percent, from about 8.7 million passengers in 2010 to 13.9 million in 2017. A nine-gate expansion coming next spring will basically get AUS to break-even capacity. Those gates are designed to bring capacity to about 15 million.
Meanwhile, airport officials are wrapping up the ABIA 2040 Master Plan, which will be brought to the city council in November. Smith says it will include plans for another 10 to 20 gates through the construction of parallel concourses and an expansion of the front of the airport, where ticketing and curbside constraints further illustrate capacity issues.
The ticketing and curbside expansions necessitate the demolition of a parking facility located near the terminal. That will be replaced by a 6,000-space facility just behind the current one. Smith notes that it won’t take long before the airport goes from master planning to construction. “We can’t wait,” he says. “We’re still growing. All forecasts show us continuing to grow. We have to move relatively quickly on the next steps.”
Employing Creative Solutions
In the meantime, Smith says, AUS is making do. Although some relief is on the way, Smith and his team of colleagues and partners have found ways to make the existing facility work while also tapping the public-private partnership realm for some additional relief.
Partner airlines have recognized the situation, Smith says, and have found ways to add passengers while waiting for more capacity. They have increased turnover on the existing gates – Southwest Airlines is doing 12 turns a day at some– and Delta Air Lines has increased the size of planes it flies from AUS.
“The airlines have recognized the situation and have worked closely with us to figure out how they could continue to add passengers at the same time the facility has to wait on the next opportunities to add gates,” Smith says. “We’re all looking forward to March when we can get some relief.”
Smith also helped conceive the idea of using a public-private partnership to construct the South Terminal, a three-gate building operated by LoneStar Airport Holdings LLC, that opened in 2017. It houses low-cost carriers such as Allegiant Air and Via Air in a low-cost setting. Early in the planning stages, AUS sought a private-industry partner to share the risk of building the facility, Smith says. The facility has proven popular enough early on that plans for its expansion also are underway.
“We desperately needed more gate space for the airlines that wanted to grow,” he says. “It’s worked out well for us. In addition to sharing the risk, they could construct it a lot quicker than we could. Once we signed the deal, they could get the construction going much quicker than we could on the city side.”
The South Terminal opening and the upcoming expansions will bring great relief, says Smith. He notes that it’s not as if the airport can push pause on passenger growth while it waits for the infrastructure to catch up.
“The lack of available space has probably cost us a couple routes here and there,” he acknowledges. “The airlines have been very ingenious and cooperative in their individual positions to continue to grow.”
And, while Smith says AUS officials wouldn’t mind seeing passenger growth decrease from the current 16 percent to a more manageable 8 percent, he also acknowledges that the current state beats the alternative. There is no balancing act, he adds. “It’s just cope.” The airport has done that well enough so that it has received top customer service awards for nearly a decade running based on satisfaction surveys conducted on various city departments. For that, Smith again credits his team.
He notes that much of the staff has been around longer than he has. Chief Operating Officer Patti Edwards has been at AUS for more than 20 years. Assistant Director Jamy Kazanoff, who focuses on business development, has been around nearly 25. That fits with his leadership strategy: “Hire the best people possible and get out of the way,” he says.
Editor’s note: The full version of this article appears in the October 2018 issue of AXN Magazine. Click here to subscribe.