2 min read June 2022 — Invest: spoke with John Ackerman, executive vice president of global strategy and development at Dallas Fort Worth International Airport, and discussed how the success of the aviation sector in North Texas is fundamentally tied to the economic strength of the region. “The resilience of our area during the pandemic has been a big key,” he said.
What have been the key highlights for DFW International Airport over the past year?
We were the second-busiest airport in the world last year, which was up significantly from our pre-pandemic levels, when we were usually in the Top 15. We’re proud of the resilience of our airline partners. American Airlines makes up 85% of our traffic and it made some really good decisions during the pandemic about its route network. It was a big driver to our success. Pre-pandemic, one out of four American Airlines customers touched DFW during their travels, but during the pandemic, one in three customers came through DFW. American Airlines also flew more of their schedule than any other carrier and it kept that success going strong as it concentrated its traffic here.
Our community in North Texas relies on us to connect it to the rest of the world and we now have more destinations today than we did going into the pandemic. Mexico is a very important market for us, with about a third of our traffic going to and from there. We now have 26 destinations to Mexico that we serve from DFW, which is incredibly important from a strategic standpoint. We’ve also seen our first service to Istanbul and Helsinki start in the past year and will soon see Tel Aviv flights. It’s been an incredible expansion moment for the airport and the economy of North Texas.
What are the expectations for the airline industry now that international destinations are opening up?
We are one of the biggest economic drivers in the region, providing benefits by increasing flights and maintaining world-class airport infrastructure. The region’s economic strength is a big reason we get these flights coming in. I’ve been here for over seven years and we no longer need to explain to people from around the world what we’re all about. We have a greater international presence and there is more attention on the economy of the region. Major carriers are making significant investments in the airport and the region as a result. In the last couple of years, there has been even more of a global spotlight on the DFW region. The resilience of our area during the pandemic has been a big key to this interest. They realize it’s a diverse economy that has been on fire. We have been the fastest-growing metro in the country, and fourth-largest overall. We are firmly in the first tier of aviation markets in the entire world, so we get that initial consideration for international destinations.
How is the airport supporting airlines as they ramp up activity?
Early in the pandemic, we provided direct financial support in the form of deferred rent payments for our airlines, doing whatever we could to help them. Most major airports run an air service incentive program in which they are willing to invest with a new airline to get new routes established. We were one of the first airports with a COVID-19 recovery incentive program for airlines that were forced to stop flying to get them back in the air again. There was a restructuring of airlines worldwide and we wanted to make sure we were at the top of the list as these decisions were being made. Every day, our mission is to run a great airport and deliver cost-effective infrastructure and we are innovators in that space. We had four 30-year-old gates that have been shut down. To save money on the replacement gates, we have come up with modular off-site construction to complete this project. While the existing structures were being demolished, new modular gates were being built at the same time. This will give the airlines what they need in terms of gates and capacity and ultimately better serve customers while being cost-effective and time saving. We estimate this innovative construction method saved approximately 25% of the cost and time versus a “conventional” construction method.
How has the Fast Pass program enhanced the airport experience for both employees and passengers?
Our employees are happy when the passenger is happy, so whatever we can do to make the customer experience a great one is what we have to do. Employees love to see innovation and the passengers have responded well to Fast Pass. Most travelers know what to expect but there is always some level of apprehension and uncertainty in the journey, so if we can remove that we give the customer back time. If they have a time scheduled to pre-screen at security, they have more time to relax and enjoy our many amenities.
What is your outlook for the aviation sector in North Texas over the next two to three years?
It’s hard to fathom how well this region has grown with a diversified economy. While Austin has a lot of tech innovation going on, our tech workforce is many times larger and it’s in all facets here, from Texas Instruments to biotech startups. The success seems to be feeding on itself as we continue to see in-migration to Dallas/Fort Worth and companies are moving here in droves to supplement that. We’re tied to the region and the region is tied to us, but we see nothing but upside ahead. Our cargo business has crossed 1 million tons annually, just five years after implementing our cargo strategy, and we believe there is a great deal more upside here. A significant part of our economic impact on the metro area is from cargo, which has been a huge wakeup for the region, so we are really investing in that part of the business now. We’re running on all cylinders. The biggest challenge is keeping up with the growth. We’re in the same markets where there are labor constraints and other concerns, so it will be competitive and we need to address that to keep the growth going.
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