No longer considered public utilities, airports have become multi-dimensional for-profit businesses. Robert W. Moorman examines the training component of these cities with wings.

With the promise of vaccines on the way, the demand for career and hourly airport staff will likely climb in 2021, according to industry prognosticators. And that will trigger a corresponding need to educate and train airport professionals in a variety of fields, from the airport general manager on down.

Educators and trainers tell CAT that airports are looking for candidates with expertise in finance and accounting, environmental management, human resource management, information technology, security, marketing, traffic flow (groundside, airside), airport planning, emergency management and other fields.

An assortment of hourly jobs remains available at selected airports, but the numbers are well below pre-Covid levels. Those jobs include baggage handler, food service workers, passenger assistants and aircraft maintenance technicians.

According to Airports Council International (ACI) World data for the first half of 2020, worldwide airport passenger numbers decreased by 58.4% compared to the same period in 2019, with international passenger traffic hit the hardest, recording a 64.5% drop.

Passenger levels in some markets showed a summer bump, and more recently a holiday boost in some countries, but those numbers are expected to suffer this winter with the second/third wave of coronavirus cases.

“On the assumption that there is some opening of borders by mid-2021 (either through testing or growing availability of a vaccine),” the International Air Transport Association (IATA) expects a $131 billion improvement in overall revenues next year. Passenger numbers are expected to grow to 2.8 billion in 2021, a billion more travelers than in 2020, though still 1.7 billion short of 2019 performance.

“The prolonged downturn continues to cost airports billions of dollars and the longer the slowdown persists, the more the losses will mount,” stated ACI-North America President/CEO Kevin Burke.

Despite this grim news, the training and education of airport professionals continues. Since the pandemic started, IATA has provided more than 120 virtual classes in various aviation-related fields. IATA provides training and education courses for airports and airlines itself and in partnership with schools, such as the University of Geneva and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (ERAU).

In addition, IATA has formed partnerships with airports where it can organize classroom courses that combine theoretical training with direct access to airports. A good example is IATA’s partnership with Fraport at Frankfurt Airport, where students can observe the operations of a technologically advanced airport.

The association has introduced virtual reality software for safety training. Its RampVR modules replicate aircraft pushback, marshaling, safety inspections and passenger boarding bridge operations.

Operation Vaccine Airlift

In coming months, cargo and passenger airlines and other stakeholders will be asked to transport millions of vials of vaccines worldwide. More than 3,200 individuals and 300 organizations have been trained by IATA in the process to achieve their ‘CEIV Pharma’ certification. This designation ensures that facilities, equipment, operations and personnel follow all applicable standards, regulations and guidelines by pharmaceutical companies.

Health and safety management is an important skill set for airport employees. Most air transport-related associations queried by CAT are working with the World Health Organization or other institutions to develop protocols for dealing with the pandemic. Airports are being trained on critical issues like transportation of medical supplies in cabin, personal protection, cabin cleaning and processing passenger boarding.

Like airlines, airports adopted strict health protocols for dealing with the coronavirus. Keith Caron, Vice President Global Assessments and Training, who runs ACI World’s Airport Health Accreditation Program, said airports must remain mindful of hygienic standards during the pandemic. What remains to be seen is whether these best practices to deal with the virus will be retained for the next virus outbreak, or put on the shelf.

IATA also offers training for airport professionals on how to design and implement a long-term strategy to ensure growth through routes and commercial activities.

Once the pandemic is yesterday’s news, airports are expected to resume hiring, continue to evolve, and explore additional sources of revenue. Landing fees, fuel service and airport concessions are no longer enough to sustain commercial airports.

“The airport business model is undergoing a transformation. In many countries they are becoming self-financed entities,” said Dimitrios Sanos, IATA Senior Product Manager Airport, Fuel & Ground Operations Training and Publications. “Today’s airports are expected to finance the infrastructure development, while keeping airport charges in check and keeping commercial activities profitable.”

He added: “Determining the right mix of aeronautical and non-aeronautical services is particularly important.”

IATA addresses this need with its Airport Route Development and Commercial Management courses. Decisions on land use “must be made early in the long-term plan,” said Sanos.

On implementing new airport regulations/laws, IATA is updating its training programs of safety management systems (SMS) and handling of dangerous goods.

Ramping Up Training

The American Association of Airport Executives (AAAE), which represents airport management at commercial and general aviation airports, offers training and certification courses for ramp workers up to the airport CEO level, beginning with its Airport Certified Employees (ACE) Program. The ACE program provides airport personnel and others in the aviation industry certifications in several disciplines under FAA Part 139, including: airfield operations, airfield lighting maintenance, security, communications, airport, SMS and trusted agent, which provides prospective and current employees a general knowledge of airport security.

Students learn about requirements for vetting, issuing, tracking and auditing airport credentials, based on US Transportation Security Administration (TSA) security directives. In late October, AAAE launched the ACE Law Enforcement program.

“AAAE is raising the bar on professional education and training of airport personnel,” said Carter Morris, Executive Vice President, AAAE Services. “The reason these kinds of training programs hold such gravitas is because they are defined by our members.”

AAAE members serve on oversight committees and boards that set standards and define the curricula. The courses are particularly valuable for airports obtaining commercial service for the first time, said Morris.

AAAE will continue to enhance its education offerings. “Airport Finance and Leadership training are two areas we’re looking to expand,” said Amy Calliari, Staff Vice President of Accreditation and Certification. “We want to make sure these people are primed and ready to be airport managers.”

Calliari said some airports require applicants to take these courses as a pre-condition to hiring, particularly in the areas of operations, security and airport lighting. Like other organizations, AAAE has pivoted from in-class to online instruction across the board during the pandemic.

AAAE has conducted Airport Certified Employee (ACE), Certified Member (CM) and Airport Rescue Firefighter (ARFF) courses for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey (JFK, LaGuardia, Newark Liberty, New York Stewart airports), Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport (ATL) and Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport (DFW), in addition to many others. DFW has a robust Customer Experience Department, with multiple divisions and a key role in operations. The department runs an "experience hub" in the airport to oversee and support terminal operations and response.

A few other airports which are customers of AAAE trainings include: Charlotte Douglas International Airport (CLT), Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County (DTW) Airport Authority, State of Alaska, and San Antonio International (SAT) Airport System.

Each US airport is responsible for ensuring their fire departments meet training requirements under Part 139 federal regulations, although the FAA does provide guidance on meeting the requirements. There are 11 subject training areas, plus a requirement for a live-fire exercise every 12 months that must be covered.

Much of AAAE training programs include some aspect of the pandemic impact on airports. Following 9/11, AAAE developed the Global Biorisk Advisory Council (GBAC) to deal with biologic threats, such as anthrax. In mid-July 2020, AAAE formed a partnership with the Industry Sanitation Standards Association to deal with the virus, among other goals.

Daniel-Robert Gooch, President of the Canadian Airports Council (CAC), a division of Airports Council International - North America (ACI-NA), said leadership training, which applies to mid-to-upper level management, is prominent. “We do a lot at this level for airport executive training,” said Gooch.

CAC is partnering with ACI World on TP-312, the Airports Standards Manual for Transport Canada.

Non-Traditional Employees

All airports get a percentage of the sales at concessions and various retail stores on site. Yet copying clothing or other retail outlets downtown no longer works for airports looking for additional revenue opportunities.

“Brick and mortar operations are a dying concept,” said ACI World’s Keith Caron. “Airports need to be more bottom-line-oriented for concessions and retail operations.”

Numerous employees no longer come through the traditional pathway of working at general aviation airports, then mid-size, then larger airports. Candidates for managing airport stores or food concessions are coming from department store giants like Harrods or food service specialists like HMS Host, said Caron.

Having real estate management skills to deal with e-commerce companies like Wayfarer and Amazon or package delivery companies like UPS and FedEx is important, he added.

Odegard’s Vision

Noted US-based schools with airport management and operations degrees include: Ohio State University, Baylor University, Louisiana Tech University, Western Michigan University, Purdue University, ERAU and the University of North Dakota’s John D. Odegard School of Aerospace Sciences.

In 1968, Odegard, a pilot and accountant, formed the aviation department at UND with two donated aircraft and one other professor. The school offered two degree programs early on: Bachelor of Business Administration and Aviation Management, which was geared toward pilots wanting to fly for the airlines. In 1982, the Center for Aerospace Sciences was established. Following Odegard’s death in 1998, the school was renamed in his honor.

Today, the Odegard Center, in collaboration with UND’s Nistler College of Business & Public Administration, offers what could be the only Bachelor of Business Administration in Airport Management in the US. The undergraduate major offers accounting courses, plus courses in strategic management, economics, finance and marketing. Business law (contracting) and human resource management courses also are offered.

Aviation-specific courses include: private pilot, air traffic control, SMS courses, plus instruction in airport operations, planning and administration. Students also can earn their certified member designation from AAAE. The school said it’s one of three universities in the States that offers the AAAE’s Airport Certification Exam. The course is optional and requires an additional fee.

“I think these courses are germane to the managing of an airport,” said Dr. Kim Kenville, Professor, UND Department of Aviation, who teaches airport management. Kenville said most airports prefer candidates with the basic content areas related to managing a business, such as finance, growth strategy, planning and emergency management. Environmental management at airports is an important skill set because of airport regulations and a mind-set change of the populace.

“But it all depends on where you live,” said Kenville. “Environmental management is important everywhere, but the rules can differ from state to state, so the time and energy afforded to it may differ. Environmental management is location dependent.” The dilemma, said Kenville, is that they are qualified environmental management professionals, but they aren’t familiar with the aviation industry. The same story applies to aviation experts and the environment.

“Finding and developing that marriage between the two is important,” said Kenville.

New Skill Sets Needed

ERAU, with main campuses in Daytona Beach, Florida, and Prescott, Arizona, offers three Master of Business Administration (MBA) courses: Airline/Airport Relations, Airport Operations and Management, Strategic Airport Planning, as well as a doctoral course: Research Seminar/Special Topics in Airport Management. The colleges of Business, Aviation and Engineering also offer airport courses.

“Airports are complex businesses, so they need people with a wide range of knowledge, skills, and experiences,” said Dr. Chunyan Yu, Professor of Air Transport Management, David B. O’Maley College of Business, ERAU.

Most ERAU graduates have limited work experience when they graduate. So their initial airport positions are entry-level typically.

“Most of the job postings we receive do not ask for experiences in a specific area,” said Yu. “They’re described in general terms, such as having aviation industry knowledge and experience.”

Ted Stevens Anchorage International Airport requires seven years’ work experience for new hires, said Yu. That experience does not have to be airport related. ERAU’s professor advises all prospective airport professionals to obtain as much internship experience as possible, preferably at the airport at which the graduate wants to work.

As for new marketable skill sets, Yu believes there is a growing need for data analytics expertise, as airports become increasingly digitized.

ERAU is seen as one of the leading aviation universities at sponsoring job fairs, setting up airport tours and inviting industry experts to speak. Often, ERAU finds “real world” projects on which students can work. Yu’s MBA Airport Operations and Management and the MBA Capstone classes worked with the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) on a strategic framework for the Puerto Rico Port Authority that operates airports in Puerto Rico, aside from Luis Muñoz Marin International Airport.

Yu’s MBA Airline/Airport Relations class worked on an air service development project that was presented to the Orlando International Airport’s Air Service and Business Development team.

Elsewhere, there are developments that help build students’ awareness of the air transport business. The Canadian Council for Aviation and Aerospace’s (CCAA) mission is to attract and develop workers for the aviation and aerospace industries, including airports and airlines. It helped students work with Air Canada for a year, who return to school to graduate. Some are hired full-time by Air Canada.

“Air Canada found the students to be an extraordinary resource,” said Robert Donald, Executive Director, adding that airport professionals need to develop career-specific and soft skills to succeed today.

“Attracting new talent has become a monumental challenge for airports,” said Donald. “The pandemic is a factor, certainly. But some business graduates think airlines and airports are risky professions.”

Whether it is mid-level managers or airport technicians, prospective employees are worried about the stability of the air transportation business across the board. Something needs to be done to counter that view, added Donald, or these students will look elsewhere for a career.

Purdue University’s School of Aviation and Transportation Technology, whose main campus is in West Lafayette, Indiana, offers a Management and Operations degree that includes courses in security, customer service, knowledge of federal regulations, baggage handing, staffing and other areas. First-year students’ coursework could include aviation business, basic aircraft science and tracking systems.

Elsewhere, there are less-expensive educational opportunities for prospective and current airport personnel. They can hone their skills without having to attend an accredited university or independent education and training company.

The Transportation Research Board (TRB), a division of the National Academy of Sciences, in cooperation with the Airport Cooperative Research Program (ACRP), offers numerous helpful reports and documents. They include:

  • ACRP Report 75: Airport Leadership Development Program;
  • ACRP Report 32: Guidebook for Addressing Aircraft/Wildlife Hazards at General Aviation Airports;
  • ACRP Synthesis 18: Aviation Workforce Development Practices;
  • ACRP Synthesis 29: Ramp Safety Practices;
  • ACRP Report 101: Best Practices Manual for Working In or Near Airport Movement Areas.

Airport Customer Experience

Another growth area for instruction is enhancing air travellers’ airport experience. “Many airports across the country have placed great importance on customer experiences in their organizational and strategic plans,” said Kenville.

DFW, Hartfield-Jackson, the San Antonio Airport System (SAAS), and Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport (MSP) have invested heavily in overhauling their airports. Some airports have created departments that focus on enhancing air traveller relations and expectations. Vancouver International Airport (YVR) and Calgary International Airport (YYC) have been “extremely successful” in promoting the air traveller experience, according to CCAA’s Donald.

The Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport (MSP) has partnered with the Hidden Disabilities Sunflower Lanyard program, which helps people with hidden disabilities discreetly inform others that they may need more assistance or patience. Image credit: MSP.

SAAS created the Soaring Towards Customer Excellence training program to ensure that a “consistent message was being communicated to all our passengers,” said Chief Customer Experience Officer Karen W. Ellis. “SAAS has a continuing education program where we send our ambassadors and customer service professionals on quarterly trips to learn more about the area, sites and attractions.”

MSP is spending $1.6 billion overhauling its main terminal, baggage claim and ticket areas, airport lounges, even the bathrooms, which were voted the best restrooms in the US a few years ago by Cintas. The airport does not have a specific customer service department. Most customer service staffers are volunteers, according to Jeff Lea, Manager of Strategic Communications. The airport has received favorable press for its upgrades. Nearly 40 million passengers passed through MSP in 2019, a 4% increase over 2018. And traffic is projected to continue to climb once the virus passes.

While education and training of airport personnel continues worldwide, staffing levels will remain stagnant until the coronavirus is brought under control and most people are vaccinated. When that happens, there will be a clarion call for numerous skilled airport staff in various disciplines for these cities with wings.