MIAMI — In a world influenced by social media, two airports are expanding their reach not only to the travelers they serve, but also by reaching out and cultivating their aviation geek communities. Washington Dulles and Miami International airports have programs that bring avgeeks into the fold via special programs and social media.
Dennis Hazell is the associate executive staff coordinator at the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA), which oversees Dulles and Washington National airports, and worked at American Airlines for 22 years. He created the Discover Dulles program as a way for those that love aviation to connect and experience things that are typically off limits to the general public.
“I initially got the idea from Yeager Airport in Charleston, West Virginia, when they invited high school students to come up and tour the airport for the day,” said Hazell. “The idea behind Yeager’s `Social Session’ was to have the attendees post about the event on social media.”
Hazell wanted to do whatever it took to connect his airport to the community it served. “Being that it was the 50th anniversary of Dulles [in 2012], I knew I could tie that into the program,” he said. “It is my passion to help promote Dulles and its history.”
When Hazell found out that the the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum’s Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center at Dulles was taking delivery of the Space Shuttle Discovery, he knew he had to do something for the community of avgeeks.
Initially Dulles’ CEO wasn’t 100 percent onboard with the idea, said Hazell. “I took a vacation and right when I returned, the CEO asked me if I was still going forward with the shuttle project,” he recalled.
Hazell went to work by organizing the event and running a contest on the airport’s social media feeds. He said his ‘aha moment’ for Discover Dulles came when he was calling and emailing the winners telling them they had won a slot in the first Discover Dulles program.
“The people were so excited, whether they were avgeeks, space geeks, NASA geeks, or people that just thought it would be cool to see history. They were all ecstatic,” said Hazell.
When the guests arrived, not only were the 50 contest winners in attendance, VIP guests were there as well, said Hazell. “The VIPs were in a group separate from the group of social media contest winners. My group was excellent,” he said. “People from the VIP group soon joined my group. The contest winners were that awesome. Then again, I had doughnuts, so maybe that’s why they came over to my group.”
The shuttle event is one of many Discover Dulles events Hazell has headed up ever since, from an appearance by the Solar Impulse aircraft to inaugural flights. The most recent Discover Dulles event was in October when British Airways started flying its Airbus A380s between Dulles and London Heathrow.
The British Airways A380 inaugural was a way for us to raise the bar on Discover Dulles, said Hazell. “How many people actually get to go on an A380, yet alone the first class cabin?” he asked. The winners of the British Airways A380 Discover Dulles event were also treated to a tour of the Dulles ramp tower, he added.
Dickie Davis, director of public and customer relations for Miami International, said that the airport loves the avgeek and aircraft spotter community. “To be honest, they’re passionate about aviation and so are we,” she said. “They post phenomenal pictures of the the diverse aircraft mix we have here. Miami is a mecca for aviation photography. It’s like knowing your neighbors. They’re fans of ours.”
They are so enthusiastic and supportive that they came to the airport’s director of security and pitched the Miami Watch security program, said Davis. The program now serves as another layer of security, she added.
“They have huge eyes on the perimeter of the airport, like a neighborhood crime watch. We’ve provided them with security training on behavior pattern recognition, just like our employees,” she said. “It’s a win-win for everyone. They get good access to the airfield and we get another layer of security.”
As the relationship grew, members would post stunning photos, said Davis. “We asked if we could use them as our photos of the week for social media, and the response was phenomenal,” she said. “Our airport director took it a level further, saying that instead of using stock photography for our annual report, why not use theirs? So we had a contest to feature their photos in our report.”
Both Davis and Dulles’s Hazell agree that it only makes sense to cultivate the avgeek community. “If you have someone reaching out on social media saying they love what you do and give you photos, content and do Miami Watch, why not?” Davis asked. “There’s nothing to lose. Some airports are worried about managing these guys, but we have a very reasonable and professional group of people.”
Hazell remains optimistic on the future of Discover Dulles. “My goal is to reinvent the program and raise the bar. I want to see it celebrate its 10th anniversary and continue to change,” he said. I want to continue to look for ways to develop interest in Dulles airport in the community it serves. Not only is Discover Dulles impacting the community it serves, it is impacting the Avgeek community.”