NEW ORLEANS, LA – Ray Ceasar was working for Civix (known then as GCR) serving Airport clients in his role as finance software and tech expert on September 11, 2001. He recalls watching the television in horror, along with the rest of the nation, as the tragic events of that day unfolded.
While attempting to process the human tragedy, he pulled up an online flight tracker that usually shows the skies teaming with flights. This time, the screen was empty.
“It gave me an eerie feeling, and in one visual, it showed the devastating effect the terrorist attacks had on the aviation industry,” he said. “While we, and the entire nation, were mourning, our airports had to also quickly evaluate the situation and dramatically alter their operations. It was truly a balance of deep emotion and reality of getting people who were stranded to their ultimate destinations.”
Ceasar was back flying to a client the next week, and he recalls there were very few other passengers on his flight and the protocols were stringent. Air travel bounced back relatively quickly, but it would not fully recover for a number of years.
Nineteen years later, another crisis has crippled the aviation industry. The coronavirus pandemic has decimated air travel demand, which hit a low in April with passenger volume down 95 percent. It is currently stuck at roughly one-third of pre-pandemic levels, and some experts predict it could take several years to bounce back.
“The industry has never experienced a shuttering on this scale before,” Ceasar says. “While this is incredibly more expansive than 9/11 in terms of duration and worldwide effect on the industry, there are parallels and lessons learned that can help airports navigate this challenging situation.”
“Following the terrorist attacks, we saw airports move quickly to implement new security measures and protocols to address passenger fear,” Ceasar said. “These measures and protocols have evolved over time. Similar steps have already been taken and are already evolving as we learn more about the virus and how to control and manage it. Revenues will, in large part, depend on reassuring passengers that it’s safe to fly again.”
It is probably not one of the first things that comes to mind, but he says one of the greatest challenges airports face in this regard is space limitations. After 9/11, airports had to integrate new security checkpoints and huge machines, and most airports do not have an abundance of extra space to accommodate these things. Now, they will need to reconfigure and modify areas to accommodate health screening, social distancing, and perhaps, isolation areas.
“When you’re thinking about security, airports focus on whether something’s on a person or in their bag. Once a person passes through a security checkpoint, they’re clear. Now, though, they need to think about how to keep people safely distanced once they’re through checkpoints. It’s a much more challenging situation,” he said.
Crises of all kinds typically precipitate change, and technology is a powerful tool in making the process smooth and efficient. That’s where Ceasar’s background comes into play. A CPA by trade, he spent the first 20 years of his career in both public accounting and private industry as a CFO/CTO. He later joined Civix, formerly GCR, in 1997 when he was tasked with spearheading preparations for Y2K. At that time, airports were scrambling because there was a fear that a number of their systems would not adequately function with the turn of the century. With his experience in both business and technology, he was able to help provide a solution, which has evolved into today’s industry-leading Civix Airport Business & Revenue Manager (ABRM) software. He sees technology as an effective and efficient tool to be leveraged to assist in solving today’s challenges too.
“When thinking about making room for health screening areas, airports using GIS can see precisely how much space they have, who is occupying it, and where they could be relocated to meet their needs,” he said. “Airports with technology tools have been better positioned to meet the challenges of this quickly evolving situation.”
With revenues at rock bottom and no sign of air travel significantly increasing in the near term, airports will have to truly maximize efficiencies. Ceasar says technology can provide real-time, actionable data that airports can use to make the best decisions in addition to helping to perform routine tasks.
“There is one source of truth, and it’s at our fingertips,” he says. “So, for example, we all know that passenger counts and flights have been significantly reduced. But to efficiently manage a large facility with reduced utilization you want to consolidate activity into manageable and controlled areas. Monitoring passenger counts and flight activity along with airline gate activity and locations is critical to efficiently managing the facility. Location adjustments have to be made quickly and ready access to data is critical in making those decisions. Similarly, managing and providing concession services to passengers is important for a positive passenger experience. Passenger flow and concession revenue data play a significant role in this area. The practical and pragmatic use of technology allows us to be proactive and overcome challenges,” he said.
Being able to quickly access and analyze data is especially important during challenging times. After 9/11, many airports suspended minimum guarantees. Technology was used to allow them to manage the amount of suspensions and assess the financial impact. They used the data to do re-projections and adjust their forecasts.
The same thing is happening in the current situation with airport tenants looking for relief. In the early days of the pandemic, Ceasar worked with some of the largest airports in the U.S. to provide guidance on how to manage rent deferment and forbearance in Civix’s Airport Business Manager (ABM) and ABRM systems.
Rent deferment is one example of how the implications of the coronavirus ripple through virtually every aspect of airport operations. Another is how new plane cleaning protocols affect turnaround for airlines that have built their reputations on speed. This could have significant revenue implications for airports as well as carriers. There are many dimensions to plan around, and in some instances, airports are not utilizing available technology to its full potential. The analogy Ceasar shares is manually banging a nail versus using a pneumatic hammer.
“Now is the time to fully embrace technology,” he said. “What used to take humans days or weeks to do can be done in an instant, and that’s afforded airports the opportunity to make quicker, better decisions to maximize efficiencies in running the business of an airport.”
Ceasar continued, “No one knows for sure when people are going to start flying in large numbers again. Technology tools can be used to help proactively look at how to inform policies and projections and to adjust budgets and activities appropriately,” he said.
Though this is an unprecedented crisis for the industry, Ceasar remains hopeful.
“At the end of the day, what it comes down to is that all these situations – 9/11, hurricanes, tornados, Covid-19 – while devastating events, are all challenges. They are all something that’s not the routine. The technologies and systems we have help us to adapt,” he said. “It’s that ability to rise to the challenge and be open to new ideas that will allow our industry to come out of this. If there’s one thing that my experience has taught me, it’s that in times of crisis, the airport industry finds a way to overcome.”