ROUTES AMERICAS: Industry Interview - George Casey, Chief Executive Officer, Vantage Airport Group


It promises to be a big year for the Vantage Airport Group. Not only is the company celebrating its 20th anniversary, but 2014 could see the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey (PANYNJ) making a decision on which of four bidders will get the green light to build and operate the new Central Terminal Building at New York’s LaGuardia Airport.

It is a decision that is being closely monitored by Vantage Airport Group, which is part of the LaGuardia Gateway Partners bidding consortium.  Along with Vantage, the consortium is made up of Skanska, Meridiam Infrastructure, Tishman Construction, Parsons Brinckerhoff, Morgan Stanley, Citigroup and Wells Fargo.  The tender is due on April 15, after which the PANYNJ will proceed with its decision-making process.

While airport privatisation has been slow to take off in the United States, highlighted by Midway’s aborted process last year, there are high hopes the LaGuardia process will set in motion a series of improvements at the gateway, which sits in the busiest air space in the world.

Vantage Airport Group’s CEO, George Casey, tells our sister publication, Routes News, the LaGuardia bid is very much the key project for the Vancouver-based airport operator in the year ahead.  “Our key focus is LaGuardia, given the timetable the PANYNJ has laid out. The company [Vantage] has a rich history of bidding for projects – LaGuardia is very exciting for us,” he says.

Casey adds that while airport privatisation projects in the USA have, in many cases, been slow-starters, he believes the LaGuardia process is moving in the right direction.  “We think the port authority is running a very transparent process, which is helpful,” he says.

“We are responding to their requirements and leveraging the extensive experience and capabilities of the [Vantage] network with our consortium partners who we think can respond to the port authority’s objectives and requirements for the development and management of LaGuardia,” he adds.

The Vantage group is up against Aerostar New York Holdings, a group that includes Highstar Capital, Aeropuerto de Cancun, Hunt Architects, Fentress Architects,VRH Construction and RBC Capital Markets; LGAlliance, which is made up of Macquarie, Lend Lease, Turner, Hochtief, Parsons and Gensler; and the third grouping, LGC Central Terminal Consortium, a joint venture of Aéroports de Paris, TAV Construction, Tutor Perini, Goldman Sachs, Suffolk Construction, STV, Arup and Kohn Pedersen Fox.

The LaGuardia project stands front and centre in terms of short-term priorities, but Casey doesn’t rule out potentially looking at other airport acquisitions in the months ahead.  “We continue to look at opportunities. There are some active opportunities out there that we are following, but our key focus this year is LaGuardia. If other opportunities come to the point where they are actually transacting, we will look at them,” he says.

The competition for LaGuardia is stiff, but if Vantage is awarded the contract this year, it would be the biggest birthday present the operator could ask for to mark its 20th anniversary.  The group started as Vancouver Airport Services in 1994 and Casey, speaking from his Vancouver offices, tells Routes News that collaboration and partnership is deeply ingrained in the group’s culture.

With airports in locations as diverse as Cyprus, the Bahamas, Canada, the UK and Jamaica, Casey says the group is in the enviable position of being able to leverage a breadth of global experience.  He notes that one of the group’s key commitments is creating growth opportunities for staff within the company – something that has been highlighted over the past year.

“What we really pride ourselves on is the development of our people within our network of airports. Recently that included the movement of our CEO in Cyprus, Craig Richmond, to become president and CEO of YVR, our long-time shareholder. Craig has had two other CEO positions within the group – one at Liverpool in the UK and, prior to that, at the Bahamas in Nassau. It’s a great example of someone working through our system,” says Casey.

That move in turn saw Wes Porter moving from Liverpool to Cyprus to take up the CEO role, while Stewart Steeves moved from being president and CEO of Nassau airport to chief financial officer for the corporate holding company in Vancouver.

The people approach has also resulted in the appointment of former Southwest network planning director, Lee Lipton, as director of air service marketing – a role that does not feature in many other airport groups’ structures.

Casey says it is a position that has proved invaluable for the group over the past two years. “We are always surprised when we talk to partners and investors about how important a position like Lee’s is,” he says.

“We have been putting resources – people and also systems – in place to allow us to analyse data, schedules, put air service proposals together. But, with a person like Lee, he can develop senior corporate level relationships with the airlines, so we might have an airline customer we know is a Vantage customer across a number of airports and Lee will help that relationship and the objectives of the airline, along with the local management team,” Casey explains.

He cites the example of Transaero, saying Montego Bay was able to secure additional services, helped by the existing relationship the Russian carrier had with the Caribbean airport’s partner gateways in Cyprus. “They [Transaero] were flying into Cyprus and they had a really good relationship with our people on the ground there and a good rapport with Lee. It demonstrates what a relationship like Lee’s could do – it goes above and beyond what the site location can do in securing Transaero,” he says.

Casey goes on to explain airports in the group’s network in some cases work on an “end-to-end service”, providing packages and proposals to airlines from both gateways.  “We are better able to give a deeper proposal and partnership approach to the carriers,” he says. “We are able to do that between our airports in Cyprus and Liverpool and also Hamilton and Montego Bay. The teams were able to work with the carriers in a much more unified fashion. We think that brings lots of value and it is not something we see elsewhere in the industry.”

I ask Casey that with more political and economic turbulence forecast for the year ahead, what he believes the biggest challenge will be for Vantage and other airport operators, and, perhaps not surprisingly, he replies that it will lie with working even more effectively with airline partners.

“It’s a highly competitive environment – the airlines are refining their decision-making processes around how they allocate aircraft and they are spending quite a bit more time and effort making sure those decisions are made, and they are responding to the market rapidly when they need to make those decisions,” he says.

With such a sharp focus on air services and airline relationships, the air service community can expect to hear and see a whole lot more from Vantage Airport Group during its special 20th anniversary year.

Routes News DON'T MISS the latest issue of Routes News which is available at this year's Routes Americas and includes an EXCLUSIVE report on the Latin America aviation industry.  Click here to view the digital version of the magazine.  Routes News


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