MIAMI — Kent George A.A.E. was named the director of aviation at Florida’s Ft. Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport in October 2007. He is responsible for the overall operation, planning and development of both Fort Lauderdale airport and the general aviation North Perry Airport.
Prior to working at Fort Lauderdale, George was the executive director and CEO for the Allegheny County Airport Authority — which oversees Pittsburgh International Airport — from 1998 through 2007. He was also the aviation director at the Quad City International Airport from 1989 through 1998.
George has been extensively active in national and international organizations, serving as president of the American Association of Airport Executives (AAAE) in 1990; chairman of Airports Council International-North America in 2005; and a member of the world board of directors for the Airports Council International from 2004 through 2011. He was named Airport Revenue News’ director of the year in 2012, Large Airports Category and the FAA’s Southern Region named him the Air Carrier Airport Manager of the Year in 2013. He spoke to Airways about his airport’s rapid growth, what makes it appealing to South Florida travelers and offered an update of the airport’s $2.3 million capital plan.
Airways: Fort Lauderdale is one of the Fastest-Growing Airports in the Country. What Do you Think is Driving that Growth?
Kent George: A lot of it has to do with the ease of getting in and out of the airport. We’re in a central location in a large metropolitan area. Southeast Florida is huge, with nearly seven million people in the area. We’re right in the middle of major arteries.
This doesn’t take away from Miami International Airport because that’s a good international connecting hub. But it’s dominated by one major carrier, while we have a very broad group of carriers serving our airport. Our airport is dominated by low-cost carriers, which makes it attractive for travelers in the region. Domestic airfares are 20-25 percent cheaper than Miami and 30 percent cheaper than Palm Beach. There’s been a very strong response to low fares offered by Southwest Airlines, Spirit Airlines and JetBlue. JetBlue has gotten very aggressive in this market.
The Airport Launched the FLL Airport Improvements and Renovations Program (FLLAIR) Program in 2011. Why Did you Feel this Project Needed to be Launched?
We had outdated terminals and runway issues. We needed a new runway in 2004 because we were one of the five most-delay prone airports in the country. Four of those airports had already gotten new runways or reconfigured their airfields. At Fort Lauderdale, we had an average delay of six to eight minutes per aircraft. In our peak season, that goes up to between 12 and 18 minutes, and that’s a lot of delays.
We have a new runway and no more delays as of September 2014. The new runway cost around $800 million, but with the savings from the past delays, it has a payback of less than four years. That’s significant when you see that it costs $44 a minute for every minute of delay. With an average delay of six minutes for each aircraft on departure and arrival, you can do the math.
Second, we have four terminals. Three were built in 1985 and one opened in 2000. But they were all pre-9/11 facilities that needed to be refreshed and meet our growth requirements. We also needed to upgrade our retail, food and beverage, security and access. We’re about halfway through, with $1 billion of construction now. It will all be done by the end of 2017.
Terminal 4 will go from 10 to 14 gates, and 12 will be swing gates that can go from domestic to international for more flexibility. Terminal 3 has 20 gates and two concourses, which will give flexibility to JetBlue and Spirit to do connecting travel if they like in the future, which we believe they will do. Terminal 2 is about to go out for bid for a new checkpoint and new concessions. Terminal 1 is in construction, with a rebuild and the addition of Concourse A, with five international gates for Southwest, and they will be swing gates.
But for now, we don’t have delays on the airside. We’ve redone the terminals and we can now function gives us the capacity to serve more than 32 million passengers a year.
How Did you Work with your Tenant Airlines to Make these Improvements while Sticking to the $2.3 Billion Budget?
The airport’s lease agreement was entered into in 1985 with the signatory airlines. When we set this up — and I wasn’t here for it — it was a long-term agreement tied to bonds. When I came here eight years ago, we recognized all the things that had to be done, but we also recognized that we were a low-cost airport, in the range of $3.85 to $5 per passenger enplanement. We listed the projects, estimated their cost and worked on how to do the financing.
We worked with the airlines. If they’re successful, we’re successful and if we’re successful, they’re successful. So we put together a capital program which they signed off on. We also did new 5-year leases so they could see how we would perform. We did the financials, and I’m happy to say that three airlines have already reupped for another five years, through 2021. We’re well down the way with our capital program, but we didn’t do it in a vacuum. Each airline has a place at the table and have been intimately involved with the process. It’s working very well.
On the financial end of it, our costs next year, even with the new runway and construction done so far is still at $4.05 per enplaned passenger. We’ve modernized the facility and kept costs low. It can’t be done by one. It has to be done by a team working together, We’ve been pretty lucky. The average cost per enplaned passenger for large hub airports is over $10, putting us in the top three lowest airports. Miami costs between $20-25 per passenger enplaned.
Your Airport is the Home Base for Ultra Low-Cost Carrier Spirit Airlines. How Much Do you Think the Carrier’s Growth in the Past Five Years Have Contributed to your Airport’s Growth?
Spirit has about 18 percent market share at the airport. It is getting more new aircraft and we’re proud to be their home. We’re happy they’re here. They have done a remarkable job establishing themselves in the ULCC arena. [CEO] Ben [Baldanza] has established a good business model and they’re doing a good job.
Fort Lauderdale has Become a Focus City for JetBlue. Why do you Think your Airport is so Attractive for the Airline?
For all the reasons above — our location in Southeast Florida. It’s also our proximity to the Caribbean, Central and South America and Mexico. It’s also about our low cost to operate. And look at the history of JetBlue. What was their first flight? JFK to Fort Lauderdale. I think the JetBlue product has gotten an awful lot of acceptance in our area, and a majority of our traffic comes from the East Coast, where JetBlue is dominant.
We’ve worked well with JetBlue, the same way we do with Spirit and Southwest. Southwest is expanding here when the new terminal opens, so we’re very well situated. Once you get into October through April, you have to come down here for our warm beaches and facilities here when it’s snowing and miserable up there.
Who is the Ideal Customer that Flies Out of Fort Lauderdale Airport?
When you look at the mix of traffic we have, we have been marketing to and trying to attract more of business traffic. When I came here eight years ago, we were at 16 percent business traffic and the rest was discretionary. We’re now doing 26 percent business traffic. Our discretionary travelers are the ones who come here for the beaches or connect to cruise ships.
The business traveler is very cost sensitive and extremely time sensitive. So their ability to fly in and out of our airport so easily and our connectivity in the center of a major metropolitan area off major roadways is what we believe is ideal for our passengers who come here, both business and discretionary. And 92 percent of our traffic is O&D.
Talk about What Cities – Domestic and International – you are Targeting for New Service in 2015 and 2016.
We go to 49 of the 50 top markets now. The only non-stop market we don’t have is San Diego. We have every single major airline here except for Hawaiian Airlines. We have flights to Europe, Central America South America and the Bahamas. We are not actively soliciting for additional service to any markets. We’re focused on supporting the carriers here as they grow. Azul just came in here last year, and when the new Customs facility is done next year, we expect more flights from them. You see that JetBlue just announced Mexico City and Philadelphia. Carriers are growing and our goal is to meet their needs.
What is the Future of the Airport, and How Does it Fit with All the Air Service Expectations for the Metro Area?
In the future, we will continue to focus on being a low-cost, accessible, convenient and pleasing airport. When you come through here now, it’s bright, refreshing and welcoming. If we can do that for the air carriers and passengers coming in and out, that’s what will sustain the growth of the airport in the future.