Exclusive interview: Vantage Airport Group Chair & CEO on transforming LaGuardia into a unified airport


LaGuardia Airport marked a new milestone in its $8 billion transformation programme with the completion of the Arrivals and Departures Hall for Terminal B.

On 10 June, LaGuardia Airport marked a new milestone in its $8 billion transformation programme with the completion of the Arrivals and Departures Hall for Terminal B. The redevelopment of the 850,000 square feet terminal, the largest at the airport, aims to dramatically transform the passenger experience, deliver on New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s vision for a unified LaGuardia, and support the economic prosperity of the city.

George Casey, Chair and CEO, Vantage Airport Group: “There are numerous stakeholders involved in aviation and airports, so there is an opportunity to think about the business differently and an opportunity to change the passenger experience.”

Following the announcement, FTE caught up with George Casey, Chair and CEO, Vantage Airport Group, and a Board Director of LaGuardia Gateway Partners – the private organisation selected by Governor Cuomo through which Vantage leads the redevelopment programme and management of Terminal B. “Back in 2016 we took over the management and operation of the existing facility and we commenced construction of Terminal B. That moved us very rapidly through the construction process for this large-scale complex project and one of the reasons why we were chosen is because we have an innovative approach to construction phasing, management, operation and financing. So, what was key was a schedule that had certainty in it,” explained Casey.

The LaGuardia Terminal B project, valued at $5.1 billion, is the largest public-private partnership in US aviation history. The new state-of-the-art terminal building includes a 35-gate terminal, a Central Hall, a parking garage, related roadways and supporting infrastructure – all with innovative construction phasing, including building over-top of the current operation, that has allowed the original terminal to remain fully functional while the new is built.

Dealing with COVID-19 as a network

The new LaGuardia Airport Terminal B was unveiled on 10 June in the presence of Stewart Steeves, CEO, LaGuardia Gateway Partners and Senior Vantage Executive; New York Governor Andrew Cuomo; and George Casey, Chair & CEO, Vantage Airport Group.

The opening of the Arrivals & Departures Hall comes as the aviation industry navigates a new age of travel through the COVID-19 pandemic. Casey, however, shared that the crisis did not significantly affect the completion of the main terminal and the nearly 95% drop in passenger numbers in fact proved an opportunity to complete areas such as the roadways at the airport. “Leading up to COVID-19, we were on track with the overall schedule for the project so when COVID-19 hit, the impacts were not material to our supply chain and delivery of this milestone. We had to work very closely to ensure the health and safety of our team and the construction teams, as well as our commercial partners, and the protocols in place were essential. We did that quickly as part of the COVID backdrop. So overall, we had some minor impact to the supply chain for this milestone, but we were able to manage through that, given the fact that the project was already under a very accelerated timetable, so that put us in very good place for the opening.”

LaGuardia has introduced a rigorous set of measures to increase cleaning and sanitisation of all areas.

As an airport group operator of 25 years, it is not the first time that Vantage has had to deal with crises of this scope. “Our airports being geographically diverse have been previously impacted by earthquakes, hurricanes, financial crises, airline collapse, so we already had the experience in dealing with challenging times. And although there isn’t an exact playbook for COVID-19 we brought that experience to bear.”

Casey further elaborated that the group has responded to COVID-19 by placing strong emphasis on three key areas – communication and coordination, health and safety, and tactical management of day-to-day airport operations.

Vantage has implemented a rigorous set of new protocols to enhance existing health and safety standards at each of its airports. At LaGuardia, the group has partnered with the Port Authority to ensure the safety and wellbeing of passengers and employees by introducing new measures such as reduced person-to-person contact via plexiglass screens, use of electrostatic fogging equipment for sanitisation, physical distance queue management, and increased cleaning and sanitisation of all areas.

Meanwhile, minimising the passenger touchpoints at the airport has also become a priority. For instance, passengers can use their mobile devices to order food and beverages from the airport’s food & beverage providers, and also pre-order food to be delivered straight to the gate.

“Greater opportunity to collaborate for a higher cause”

Vantage Group has partnered with the Port Authority to ensure the safety and wellbeing of passengers and employees at LaGuardia Airport by introducing new measures such as reduced person-to-person contact via plexiglass screens, use of electrostatic fogging equipment for sanitisation, physical distance queue management, and increased cleaning and sanitisation of all areas.

The drop in passenger numbers has had a tremendous impact on non-aeronautical revenues, not just at LaGuardia but at airports globally. This has raised further questions on how sustainable and future-proof this business model is. Casey explained that Vantage is already working with its commercial partners to determine what the future holds in this area. “In the medium-term we are looking into new systems, such as touchless ordering and delivering and how we can shift the model to respond to where we are in the market today, and we are going to look into how this evolves in the longer-term.”

He continued: “There’s no doubt that there would be new learnings that come out of this and those will impact the partnerships and structures going forward. We see new opportunities in that. Those opportunities will of course be bolstered by the results and how the passengers interact and what we see those outcomes to be. It’s very important to put these in place, test them, enhance them and see what the results are and think about how it affects the partnerships.”

Vantage Airport Group is a Corporate Member of the FTE Innovation & Startup Hub – the world’s first air transport innovation network.

For Vantage Airport Group, which is also a part of the FTE Innovation Hub, the need for collaboration and innovation has never been greater. “What I find the most interesting coming out of this is the opportunity we have for collaboration for a better purpose and a higher cause, and also to look at our historical models and think about how we can enhance them and address them together,” Casey said. “There are numerous stakeholders involved in aviation and airports, so there is an opportunity to think about the business differently and the opportunity to change the passenger experience. That’s a combination of tactical operating and also bringing more innovation and technology into the business. In the end, if it means a better passenger experience and safer environment overall and it helps us manage through changes in the business, which we know are going to come, that would be helpful.”

Looking ahead, Casey agrees with the general industry consensus that it will take between three to five years for air traffic to return to previous levels with domestic traffic resuming faster than international. “The actual growth will depend on the local jurisdiction of the airport. But what we do know is that traffic is increasing now. It’s hard to say if that would sustain because of other factors outside of our control including a second wave, vaccination and other local and government regulations. But traffic is returning, our airports are ready for the return of traffic and we are making sure we have enhanced our protocols and we are communicating about these enhancements so that passengers and employees feel safe using our airports. We are also thinking about what that means for our business longer-term and how our business can be done in a way to address that,” he concluded.

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