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by Anitra D. Brown

Officials Prove Why It Is An Industry Leader

According to the TSA, U.S. airports saw more travelers on Friday, March 12 of this year than any day since March 2020, when the first waves of the COVID-19 pandemic began to impact communities across the country and hit even closer to home—claiming lives and closing businesses.

No industry has been unscathed, but arguably none has been hit harder than the airline industry. 

Across the globe, seating capacity fell by more than 50 percent last year, leaving just 1.8 billion passengers taking flights through 2020, compared with around 4.5 billion in 2019, according to the International Civil Aviation Organization.

It amounted to a financial loss to the industry of around $370 billion as coronavirus brought both international and domestic air travel to a near grinding halt.

And the brand new Louis Armstrong International has been no exception. Having only celebrated the official grand opening of its new terminal in November 2019, international travel at Armstrong International was non-existent and domestic travel plummeted by 90 percent barely six months later.

“We first began to feel the impact in mid-March, then the first full month was April. Before COVID, a normal day—a slow day of processing passengers would be in the 16,000 passenger range,” Kevin Dolliole, Armstrong International Director of Aviation, says. “A real busy day might be 25,000 or so. Well, to give you an idea of what it was like, there were days in April when we were feeling the full brunt, where we were only pushing hundreds of people through the security checkpoint a day. Passenger counts just dropped off the table to almost non-existent. It was like a ghost town out here—here and every airport in the country.”

Dolliole says things began to improve a bit in May and June, but progress flattened July through September as the impact of a second surge of the virus was felt. October through December started a slow rise again. 

“We hope to see a gradual uptick for now. But the expectation in the industry is that by late summer once, the vaccine is pretty well widely distributed that we will see a surge in traffic from late summer through the end of the year,” says Dolliole.

Speaking of upticks, on Friday, March 12, the airport saw 10,400 passengers come through their checkpoints. The number dipped on Saturday March 13 to 7,200 passengers. Then on Sunday, March 14, the Airport saw 12,300 passengers through checkpoint— the highest number since March 16, 2020. And what those passengers got to see and experience was an airport that has been preparing for their return.

Indeed, the numbers logged in mid-March could be that first flicker of sunlight at the end of a long dark tunnel that Dolliole talked about when he and other Airport leaders spoke exclusively to The New Orleans Tribune earlier in the month about how the airport has managed in the midst of the pandemic and how the industry is on the brink of a rebound—albeit a “slow, gradual” one in his estimation.

“Its like a B-52 taking off as opposed to a fighter jet,” said Dolliole, using one of his signature  aircraft references to make a point. 

But whenever it takes off again—really takes off like that fighter jet Dolliole alluded to—Louis Armstrong International Airport does not have to get ready, because it’s been ready.

Whatever It Takes

“As we went into this period of time where we were significantly impacted by the COVID pandemic we have done a number of things as it relates to our overall operations, our finances, our budget, expenses and its been a bit of a different world, not just for us but for airports in general,” said Dolliole. “And we also recognized while we were doing things so that we could be financially viable during this period, we recognized the need to make the facility safe and make it known it known that our facility was safe to restore confidence of the traveling public.”

To achieve that goal, leaders at Louis Armstrong International launched MSY Travel Ready, a strategic and comprehensive plan that outlines the steps that the airport and its partners took to provide a safe and healthy travel experience. The plan was a coordinated effort to implement airport facilities and operations changes based on CDC and other health expert recommendations to protect passengers and employees against the spread of COVID-19.

At the time the plan was implemented in June 2020, airport officials estimate that passenger activity was down 90 percent from the previous year. Still, the travelers who visited the airport during the height of the pandemic could see very clear changes, including plexiglass barriers between airport staff and travelers, elevator occupancy limits, and signage and floor decals at ticket counters, queuing lanes, TSA checkpoint, concessions, baggage claim and other public spaces to encourage physical distancing. The plan also included intense facility and sanitation measures and mask-wearing requirements several months before the measure was mandated by the TSA.

“We did all of that, we did the work, we stepped up our procedures, then we asked ourselves are we doing everything we can do,” Dolliole told The Tribune. “So we engaged an international organization, the Global Bio-risk Advisory Council, in going through a process where they evaluate what you’re doing, how you have trained your employees and sanitized your facility, the processes and procedures you use and demonstrate your commitment to providing a clean and healthy facility. They validate your procedures and certify that you are indeed doing all of the right things to ensure the safety of the traveling public. And if you are, you receive a GBAC Star Certification. When we did that, we were one of only six airports in the country that had that certification. Now, I think it’s up to about 21 airports. So we were early on and on the forefront of going through that process.”

Applauding the proactive approach of the Airport’s leadership and staff, Aviation Board Chairman, Judge Michael Bagneris says, “The pandemic was announced in March. We moved on the Travel Ready program in June. The director and the staff at the airport—they leave no stone unturned. The minute they are confronted with any kind of problem, they immediately go into action. I don’t care how difficult the challenge is. This group, I call them the WIT group. You know, ‘whatever it takes”. They are going to make sure that it’s done.”

A Litany of Awards and Honors

And the work has paid off. Earlier this month, Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport received an award for Best Hygiene Measures by Region (North America) from the Airports Council International (ACI) World’s 2020 Airport Service Quality (ASQ) program. 

Dolliole says the Louis Armstrong is again one of only six airports in North American to receive this award.

“So our efforts have been validated by a couple of high profile organizations,” he says.

And the airport’s work has been applauded at the highest levels of city government.

“(Louis Armstrong International) plays a major role as a gateway and aviation hub for the State and the Gulf South region for all of our national and international visitors. Our airport continues to be recognized for its leadership, cleanliness, customer satisfaction, and overall performance, despite the challenges from the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Mayor LaToya Cantrell in statement about the honor.  “Our number one priority throughout COVID-19 has been the health and safety of our people, and MSY has been putting in the hard work to ensure that for residents and visitors alike.”

The world’s leading airport customer experience measurement and benchmarking program, the ASQ awards highlight the world’s best airports as judged by customers who are surveyed while they are in the airport. The ASQ Departures program measures passengers’ satisfaction across 34 key performance indicators. 

“New Orleans truly has a world-class Airport, and with this news, the people of New Orleans can be confident that we are doing what it takes to ensure a safe, comfortable experience while traveling though our facility,” said Judge Bagneris at the time the ASQ award was announced. “This is yet another piece of proof that our City’s investment in a new terminal facility was well worth it.”

To be sure, the Airport’s facility has not been alone in the accolades and honors during this unprecedented time. Its people have also been acknowledged across the industry.

One month after launching MSY Travel Ready, Dolliole was elected to the Board of Directors for Airports Council International – North America (ACI-NA), the trade association that represents airports in the United States and Canada. 

The announcement was made on July 24, 2020; and just one day earlier the Airport announced that its Deputy Director of Aviation Henrietta Brown was selected to serve as chairwoman of the American Association of Airport Executives’ (AAAE) Finance and Administration Committee for 2020-2021. AAAE represents 7,000 airport professionals across the world through advocacy and professional development opportunities, and as chair of the Finance and Administration Committee, Brown will work to improve airport finance and administration management through interaction with other airport executives and partners in the aviation industry.

“Henrietta is an excellent leader and a valuable asset to our airport,” said Dolliole at the time of Brown’s appointment to the national organization’s leadership. “We are proud that she will take on this key role with AAAE nationally. With airports across the country facing major financial challenges due to the impact of COVID-19, it is quite significant to be chosen to help the industry navigate this crisis.”

In September of 2020, the Airport shared another major announcement. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) awarded an additional $39.3 million in grants to MSY, to help fund an extension to its current taxiway infrastructure. The grant is a part of the FAA’s Airport Improvement Program (AIP), which funds airport infrastructure projects, including runways, taxiways, airport signage, lighting, markings and other critical infrastructure. The Airport was previously notified that it would be awarded $15.2 million in AIP funds for the taxiway project. The September award brought the total federal funding for this project to $54.5 million.

The projects consists of extending Taxiway G 1,500 feet to the west of its current location to connect it with Runway 11 end and building out Taxiway B to connect it to Taxiway G, along with the installation of associated lighting and signage. The work is expected to be completed by the end of 2021. 

Dolliole said the additional funding helps to position Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport to accommodate our future needs.

 “With the challenges brought on by the pandemic, the financial support from our federal partners is more important now than ever,” Aviation Board chairman Bagneris said.

In February, both Dolliole and Kristina Bennett-Holmes, the Airport’s Deputy Director of Aviation – Commercial Development, was elected to serve in leadership positions in the Airports Council International – North America (ACI-NA) organization—Dolliole as s the chair of ACI-NA’s Board Finance Committee and Bennett-Holmes as vice chair of ACI-NA’s U.S. International Air Service Program.

Perhaps the biggest news of all came in October 2020 when Dolliole, who as Director of Aviation is responsible for all operational, organizational and development initiatives including the new $1 billion airport terminal, which was unveiled in 2019, was named Airport Experience News’s Director of the Year in the medium airports category.

 “We are excited to see the rest of the nation come to appreciate what we in New Orleans have known for years: Kevin Dolliole is a national treasure for his work to make Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport the crown jewel of the Gulf South,” said Mayor Cantrell said at the time of the announcement. 

And the accolades are flowing both ways with Dolliole praising the Mayor Cantrell’s administration and her leadership of the city during the COVID-19 crisis.

“We have been doing the right things at the airport to ensure your safe passage,” Dolliole says. “But on top of that, we have leadership in this City that has made some really tough decisions to keep the public safe as we move through this process. So based on how the leadership has moved in our city, I will tell you that not only (are travelers) safe (coming through the airport), but (they) will be safe while you are here.”

Taking Care of Business

While ensuring the safety of the traveling public has been an important goal for airport officials, travelers have not been the only focus for airport leadership as it has navigated the COVID crisis. 

As Dolliole notes, airport travel relies heavily on the number of people going in and out of an airport on any given day and is tallied through parking fees, concession sales, and landing fees paid by airlines. Without planes landing or people traveling, the Airport expected revenue shortfalls.

“We took a very significant blow to our revenue,” Dolliole says. “We were down about $43 million or so in revenue in 2020. What helped airports were the relief packages. The CARES ACT provided $42 million in relief to the airport. Plus we got a second relief package towards the end of the year – another $13 plus million.” 

As for its employees, Dolliole says the goal was always to keep its workforce whole.

“Our employees are very critical to the ongoing operations of the Airport. There are areas that continue to have needs regardless of the level of traffic through the facility.”

The CARES ACT required that airports that accepted aid make a commitment to retain at least 95 percent of their staffs.

“So while we were already in the mode, the CARES package tied that neatly together and required it,” says Dolliole, “ so we stayed whole in our workforce. Now we did implement a hiring freeze, cut some services and did different things to reduce cost. But we did maintain our workforce.”

The second relief package of more than $13 million received at the end of 2020 included $12 million to be used directly by the Airport and another $1.4 million to assist the concession operators, says Dolliole

But even before those funds were available, one of the ways that Louis Armstrong International moved quickly to assist its concessionaires—the small businesses that operate inside the terminal—in response to the pandemic was by renegotiating their concession contracts to waive the MAG or minimum annual guarantee, which is an industry standard in the airport concession business. As the name suggests, concession operators are expected to pay the MAG regardless of how much or how little revenue they actually make. Instead of holding concession operators to the MAG, the Airport opted instead to accept an agreed upon percentage of their revenue.

“We didn’t see that as fair or a viable piece to keep in place when passenger traffic dropped to the floor,” says Dolliole. “We really saw it as a significant burden on our concessions operators if we had required that they stay with the minimum annual guarantee. So what we did, and the board was fully supportive of the concept, was waive the MAG and have the concessionaires pay just a percentage on what they earn. We recognized right off that we wanted operators at the end of the day. So we couldn’t force our operators to be locked into agreements that were reached when the projected traffic through the facility was quite high and now it’s down to almost nothing.”

Dolliole adds that the Airport has also been working closely with concessionaires, “keeping them informed, helping them plan their temporary closings when things were really low and their slow reopening as travel picks up. We were doing this without federal support, so what that second package did was allow us to continue with the program with some support from the federal government.”

Edgar “Dook” Chase is the local joint venture partner with food and beverage concessionaire Delaware North. Their team manages Leah’s Kitchen, Dook’s Burgers, Bar Sazerac, Folse Market, MoPho, and other businesses at the Airport. Chase describes the airport’s leadership as a “great partner” that has not only allowed flexibility in their operations, but has also worked in “lock-step” with concessionaires to keepthem infomred and prepared.

“Waiving the minimum payment was huge,” says Chase. “We had just finished a big capital investment, and had a few great months; and then the pandemic hit and pumped the breaks on everything. Not only relieving the minumum payment, but they have been flexible with hours of operations as well. Still to this day, they are sharing data that allows us to plan our capacity and staff. It has really allowd us to survive.”

Judge Bagneris again notes that the airport’s leadership and Board did not wait until there was a problem to offer some relief to its concession operators.

“The board and the staff were proactive in taking this step,” he says. “It wasn’t a situation where the concessionaires were grumbling. Here,  we understood what the pain was and immediately acted on it by relieving them of the MAG and dealing with a percentage. That’s the kind of people you want running the airport. That’s the kind of people I want running the airport.”