American airport expert speaks at PJIA symposium “Grow or die, that’s the hard truth”

POSTED: 12/4/13 12:13 PM

St. Maarten – It’s the “fastest, best connected businesses and places will win” in a globally competitive economy. “Grow or die, that’s the hard truth. If the airport doesn’t expand its market share, the island will suffer,” Dr. John Kasarda said in stark terms yesterday. The world renowned airport expert from the Univerity of North Carolina’s Center for Air Commerce gave a two part lecture on the concept of the “aerotropolis,” or airport city, at the Westin Hotel. The lecture was part of a symposium organized by the Princess Juliana International Airport (SXM Airport) to commemorate its 70th anniversary.

But that growth does not have to be merely physical. It can be about better quality in St. Maarten’s case, where space for physical expansion is severely limited. It can be about offering visitors and SXM Airport passengers a better overall user experience, in an ever increasingly competitive global market. In this era of accelerating globalization, it is no longer necessarily “the big beating the small, but the fast eating the slow.” Speed and agility in business making decisions and services are the deciding factors. “It’s time based competition.”

A number of speakers besides Kasarda also spoke, including Minister of Justice Dennis Richardson and Managing Director Regina LaBega – who gave an outline of the airport’s history and its future – but they kept their remarks short allowing the guest speaker to comfortably make his presentation in front of the packed audience; a fact which he noted and appreciated, He admired their words for their clarity and understanding of the importance of the SXM Airport for St. Maarten’s future.

The theme of his lecture was about the airport city, and its place in an ever evolving world and rapid globalization – speed and connectivity are vital. The hub would be the airport, surrounded by a bee hive of economic and cultural activities that enhance a traveler’s experience. There are some airports in the world where people can go to a movie while they wait in transit, or visit a spa. Couples can, for example, get married at Schiphol airport in the Netherlands before embarking on their journey. It even has a casino. In his experience, “the Dutch are the best planners in the world.” Though they “have a tendency to over-plan,” Kasarda quickly quipped.

According to Kasarda’s faculty website, the aerotropolis concept “positions airports as 21st century drivers of business location and urban economic growth.” He described those who view an airport as something where passengers simply get on and off an airplane as stuck in last century thinking; an airport is more than a place where aircraft land and people are processed, it is a social and economic hub of activities catering to the rise of the global traveler in the age of aviation.

Kasarda spoke of a world that is not standing still, one in which innovators succeed, and those who don’t adapt and grow, fail. “It’s happening very fast,” he said. “High tech supply chains move by air.”

International tourism is the world’s fastest growing industry, rapidly expanding as more and more developing economies pull millions out of poverty and into the middle class, especially in Asia. Global income levels, for the most part, are rising, Kasarda highlighted. “China, for example, will be adding close to 110 million new travelers alone. He asked if the audience could imagine “tapping in to just 1% of that? That’s 1.1 million new visitors.”

He recounted an anecdote about a trip to the Far East and being stuck in traffic, the taxi driver reminded him that this was the price of economic growth. An epiphany dawned on him and he understood right away. To those who complain about the negative effects of growth, Kasarda had a shrewd response: “show me a city of a million without traffic congestion and I’ll show you a city in trouble.” In other words a place without the problems of growth has no growth at all, and no opportunities for people. It is not a justification of the negative, but rather that these are usually signs of growing wealth. St. Maarten’s congestion problems, therefore, are a sign of its positive economic growth, however frustrating they may be to residents who have to endure it.

That type of growth needs a partnership, and for St. Maarten that means a triangular partnership between airline companies, the airport, and the government; a partnership that will not always be smooth, but one in which the government should allow the airport the maximum amount of freedom to respond rapidly and decisively in a competitive global marketplace.

“Schiphol,” he said, “is freed of the shackles of the government, operating as a private sector entity.” While it’s still owned by the Dutch government, it’s able to function as a private company, flexible and efficient. “It’s the market that ultimately dictates what will work and what will not, not a government. Markets trump politics.” Schiphol remains a global example of a thriving airport city.

Kasarda showed other examples around the world of countries embracing the aerotropolis concept, especially in Asia, where countries are hyper-competitive. “Competitiveness,” he repeated, “rests on creating the hard and soft infrastructure, and improving speed, agility, and connectivity.” By soft infrastructure he meant levels of service and the aesthetics of an airport and its surrounding environment, adding to its appeal and leaving that vital positive first impression on visitors.

He pointed out that investment in infrastructure that will reduce wait times for passengers and ease congestion and bottlenecks are wise. “Build expressways and reduce chokepoints.” The Causeway is a good example of this, opening up a new access route to the SXM Airport, which is already heading in the direction of an aerotropolis, not just for St. Maarten, but for the surrounding region as well.

“The aerotropolis concept may be a good way for St. Maarten to diversify, but you need funding and leadership,” he said.  An airport is becoming “a mini economy in itself.” And the trend within the commercial parts of an airport is moving toward more local based and upscale, like restaurants, for example. Kasarda mentioned the large scale exportation of fresh flowers, paired with the global reach of SXM Airport, as a way of diversifying the island’s economy.

“St. Maarten’s airport retail opportunities,” he continued, “can serve consumers from other islands who don’t have the opportunity to buy certain goods.” St. Maarten, too, already has built in advantages.

The way forward for SXM Airport – and by extension the island – Kasarda said, was for St. Maarten to have a “champion,” a non-polarizing, well respected figure who can look out for the common good and interest of the entire country; someone whom others can rally around. That “champion” will require vision and action, he warned though, because “vision without action is a daydream, but action without vision can be a nightmare.”


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