Saturday, January 28, 2017
Fort Lauderdale airport CEO Mark Gale reflects on first year, offers 2017 outlook
By Arlene Satchell
The South Florida Sun Sentinel
Mark Gale (second right) aviation director/CEO, Broward County Aviation Department, delivers a speech on Dec, 15, 2016 to mark Emirates’ launch of nonstop service between Dubai in the Middle East and the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.
Just six days into 2017, top managers at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport saw their view toward a favorable new year severely jarred by a horrifying disruption.
With no warning, a gunman opened fire in a baggage claim area of Terminal 2, killing five people and wounding six others.
While normal operations have since resumed, it remains to be seen if the mass shooting will hinder financial and economic progress this year.
In the days following the incident, the airport worked to erase visible reminders of the violence. Exactly one week later, authorities reopened the affected baggage claim area after paying respects to the victims in a moment of silence.
"We will never forget the senseless loss of life we experienced here, but I am humbled by the extraordinary efforts I see by our employees and our partners to return to normal," said Mark Gale, the airport's CEO and director of aviation, during the ceremony. "This airport is a gateway to one of the most beautiful places in the world, and we are open for business."
Gale has asserted he doesn't expect the shooting to have any long-term adverse impact on the airport's growth. The airport cannot allow the actions of the alleged shooter, Iraq war veteran Esteban Santiago, 26, to negatively define its future, he said.
Santiago was indicted Thursday by a federal grand jury in Fort Lauderdale on 22 criminal counts, including multiple charges of violence at an airport that ended in death and injury, as well as a number of firearms charges. He could face the death penalty or life in prison if convicted.
Recent history has shown that shootings at other major U.S. airports have not caused long-term business disruptions.
At Los Angeles International Airport, the nation's third busiest, passenger traffic climbed to 70.7 million in 2014 from 66.7 million in 2013, the year a gunman killed a Transportation Security Administration agent and wounded several other people before he was shot and apprehended.
Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood ranks No. 21 in passenger traffic, and is viewed as one of the nation's fastest growing airports.
The Broward airport's busiest carrier —JetBlue Airways — has reiterated its commitment to grow operations to 140 daily departures by 2020, from about 100 today. Southwest Airlines — the third-busiest carrier— is also advancing plans to launch a handful of international flights this summer from its new Concourse A in Terminal 1.
In an interview with the Sun Sentinel prior to the shooting, Gale talked about his nearly one-year tenure as CEO, and how 2017 was shaping up in terms of growth, expansion and renovation projects and customer service improvements.
Gale, 54, arrived at the airport from Philadelphia in March 2016 to replace former aviation director Kent George, who retired. Gale had retired as head of Philadelphia International Airport after nearly 28 years there, seven as its CEO.
The interview was edited for clarity.
Q: How would you describe your nine-month tenure so far at FLL?
A: It's been kind of a whirlwind. When I first came down here it was like drinking from a fire hose. Even though I know airports and know how to run them, I still had to get up to speed on all the different issues that are particular to this airport and this environment. I knew in coming here that my role as CEO also came with a bigger mission, which was to understand and appreciate how a major transportation facility like a large hub airport, integrates and facilitates the economic vitality of this region. I've discovered there's a huge sense of pride in the community for their hometown airport. I've been welcomed with open arms by everyone and I have a phenomenal team.
Q: What's in store for FLL in terms of passenger traffic growth in 2017?
In recent years the aggregate growth in passenger volume has been about 9 percent and we think that may increase a little in 2017. We've added a lot with respect to Cuba flights; Norwegian is growing; we now have Emirates and British Airways is coming in, and JetBlue has already announced a number of new cities for 2017. With the opening of Concourse A in Terminal 1, Southwest plans to develop and grow an international gateway starting this summer. So far we believe 2017 will be on par with 2016 and 2015 in terms of rate of growth of about 2.5 million passengers annually. Still, there could be a number of factors that could trip us up, including the change in federal administration, airline internal issues, some type of event that is economic or security-related in nature.
Q: What's on tap for FLL in terms of construction and upgrade projects in 2017?
There are a lot of exciting things happening and not just in terms of new terminal construction but also what is going into those terminals — new concessions, amenities, food, beverage and shops—– in an attempt to deliver on the best guest experience that we can, which I'm a huge advocate of. In late November, a new connector bridge between Terminal 3 and Terminal 4 opened to allow passengers to move between terminals for connecting flights or to visit shops and restaurants after going through airport security only once, which has been a wonderful addition. Among the construction projects under way is a $450 million expansion and modernization of Terminal 4, which began in spring 2013 and is slated to finish in early 2018. In 2017, Concourse H will be completely removed. Another is the $100 million enhancement of Terminal 2, which includes the renovation of ticketing areas and restrooms and expanded concessions. The project started in late 2016 for completion in mid-2019.
Q: What opportunities or challenges lie ahead for FLL in 2017 and beyond?
Airports are about balance in four major components: airspace, airfield, terminals and landside facilities including roadways and parking, and we have to keep them in balance because once one of those areas start to get out of sync, problems start to creep in. I think the new South Runway, which opened in September 2014, addressed some of the airfield concerns, and today, I'm focused primarily on the terminals and the runways. But we also have to look at our roadways and garages to make sure that motorists and pedestrians can get in and out of the airport easily, without delay and safely, and then ultimately on how the airport connects to the outside world.
There is a lot of positive to accentuate at FLL, with the improvements under way and growth of existing airlines and arrival of new ones. We're going to have to stay keenly focused on delivering on all of those improvements while at the same time keeping an eye to the future. For example, we need to know when everything we're doing right now is complete, whether or not it will be sufficient to handle forecasted future growth. Based on projections we've done, at annual growth rates of between 4-7 percent the airport is poised to welcome 38 million passengers by 2020. In some respect that's actually a conservative number based on growth trends of the past couple years. So the trick is to try to manage the growth responsibly. You don't want to shun it, but you also don't want to be ignorant to the fact that growth, particularly significant growth if not managed well, can actually be harmful.
To that end, I'm working closely with all our stakeholders — the airlines, Transportation Security Administration, U.S. Customs & Border Protection, our concessions, car rentals — and many, many others, to try to ensure that the airport is managed responsibly, and that we're looking ahead to the future understanding what's in front of us in terms of that growth, and what we need to do in order to meet those needs and demands that in some cases are already on our doorsteps and are going to get even more significant as we move forward.