Air traffic has grown exponentially in the past few years. Please give us your output on air traffic in Antigua and Barbuda and where is it heading?
Air traffic has been experiencing constant and steady growth over the past couple of years, interrupted only by the passage of the 2017 hurricanes. Our region is extremely resilient and Antigua and Barbuda is a high demand destination. So we bounced back quite nicely after the storms and this year has been extremely positive. The numbers show it. There’s an obvious correlation between our economy, which is tourism driven, and air travel. An increase in flights is a strong indicator of some welcomed facts. First of all our economy is expanding, brand new hotel properties have been added to the destination and an increasing number of flights are feeding our beautiful destination with more travelers. We maintain a strong and working relationship with the tourism authority so the destination can stay on top of and ahead of the trends in the market.
V.C Bird International Airport (VCBIA) is the largest Leeward Islands airport. It handles over 850,000 passengers per year and accommodates over 10 airlines with direct flights to and from Antigua and the rest of the world. Please give us an overview of the airport and how can it be improved? What are your objectives for 2020?
The new terminal, which opened in 2015, is a flagship of our destination. It has already been awarded the best in the Caribbean. But by no means will we be complacent. We have embraced the challenges and our team is laser sharped focus on building on our gains. We have a 10-year vision and the overall maintenance of an exceptional facility is a crucial ideal in the success of that plan. Antigua and Barbuda is a small economy and resources are limited. But there are no limits to our drive and our vision and the very fact that you can be speaking to me within the confines of such a modern facility is testament to that. To realise our goals, we are simply thinking smarter and not bigger. Technology is key and we are attuned to the solutions to get people through the airport a lot faster. Operational efficiency that results in a significant improvement in the passenger and travel experience is a necessary end goal. We have started looking at the removal of physical outbound immigration. It’s one of the major investments that we intend to undertake in making full use of available technology in maintaining industry standards and providing superior service.
ABAA vision is to position V.C Bird International Airport as the gateway of choice to the eastern Caribbean and beyond. What are your main priorities as CEO of the ABAA?
Antigua and Barbuda ideally located geographically at the very centre of the Caribbean. Our airport is already taking flights from major markets. We are headquarters for the largest and most important airline company in the Caribbean, LIAT. What I have just described are two important factors that make the VC Bird International not only the gateway of choice to the Eastern Caribbean, but a hub for travel in the entire region. The Caribbean is at your fingertips from Antigua, whether you are travelling for leisure or for business. We can only grow from here. The development of cargo to enable transshipment throughout the region is our next major priority. The dynamics of the marketplace dictate that we have to be thoughtful in our decisions so they align with the current needs of the airport. Our regional presence will form an important part of our 2020 Master Plan.
JetBlue will be adding two flights from New York to Antigua every week. There has also been an agreement on the resumption of the second daily flight from Miami by American Airlines. How will those US additions benefit the Antiguan economy? Are there any new companies interested at entering Antigua?
The tourism industry is a main driver of economic growth. American Airline’s additional flight from Miami started last year. It is a seasonal flight, which received a setback due to Boeing’s issues with the 737 max jets. We have seen the benefits of these additional flights in 2019. Growth has been positive and we certainly welcome JetBlue’s addition. The Royalton Hotel opened this year and the impact was immediate. We saw a marked increase in passengers out of the Canadian market. A bit of a challenge was the collapse of Thomas Cook but British Airways and Virgin Atlantic seem poised to bridge that gap in the market. We are currently in discussions with the Antigua and Barbuda Tourism Authority to understand the current state of tour operating companies in the UK. Our support of their activities as usual will be crucial.
Competition is fierce between Caribbean islands. What makes Antigua and Barbuda different from other Caribbean countries and what is your competitive advantage?
Far from it, we are not in competition with other airport authorities. We have established some lofty standards and they drive us. The competition in a small regional space takes place among the various countries. Competition drives performance and quality and we at the airport feel the impact. As the economy expands and the tourism plant is invigorated, we must always be ready to respond to ensure that passengers arriving and leaving Antigua are giving not only the best experience but a lasting one so they can return again. The industry is fragile and the Caribbean knows it has to do everything in its power to protect it. The competition is healthy. We rally when a hurricane strikes an island for example because the message that goes out is the Caribbean has been hit by a storm. People make generalizations and believe the whole Caribbean has been touched so it affects all of us. Similarly, if a visitor has a good experience in one of the islands it benefits the whole region as for his next trip he might want to visit a new Caribbean destination.
With global logistics being transformed by digitalization. What steps are AABA taking to capitalize on changing global logistics patterns and how are you planning to further increase your profits in the years to come?
We have a staff of over 300 and are currently leaning the authority towards automation in a project that started about 2 years ago. Human resources and accounting are very much automated; our next frontier is preventative and corrective maintenance of the entire V.C Bird International Airport facilities. We have to move in tandem with the national development goals of our small nation. It goes well beyond the movement of passengers seamlessly through the airport. We are also ahead of the game in getting all of the relevant facilities that make Antigua and Barbuda a centre of commerce and trade to world standards. As mentioned earlier we also want to remove physical outbound immigration and we plan on starting that next year. On the inbound side, we will be adding self-check machines.
Human Resources is a key factor for visitors to have a great airport experience. How important is the training of its staff for ABAA?
Superior customer service is an imperative to having a great airport experience. We intend to focus 2020 on customer service training throughout the VCBIA community. We have a Department simply called Customer Service geared at ensuring that we are organized and always on the ready on that front. However, we are looking to refocus and rebrand as “ Passenger Experience unit”, to ensure that we always exceed the expectations of the traveler. Customer Service is a term that is too general. The department will be narrowing its focus on the main users of the airport. The renewed focus on Passenger Experience is going to be one of our major projects in the coming year not just for the Airport Authority but also for the stakeholders. We intend to fully engage the entire VCBIA community in the process.
As the first woman to lead the ABAA program. What does it feel like to have succeeded in a world full of men? And what would be your message to other women wanting to challenge the status quo?
I was extremely humbled at the appointment and today I remain extremely thankful that I have been given this opportunity to serve. I have been with the airport for seven years and I approached my role as CFO with much enthusiasm and a toughness that I fervently believed was required to ensure that we maintain certain controls at the airport and maximise on its growth. I think it may have earned me a reputation as very no-nonsense. And I welcome that because together with my professional competencies I was able to earn the confidence and respect of not only the government but our community as well. We are very tight knit community and expectations are high and so it has placed a huge amount of responsibility on my shoulders. I am up to the challenge, and even though we may wish to get sentimental about the fact that I am a woman, I am not worried about the perception that may bring. The most that I will say to that is I am hopeful that I can be an inspiration to others who are also dreaming to reach the very heights of their careers. I have a job to do and so far the great support from my management team and a wonderful set of employees has placed the VC Bird International on the right track for further success.
You were appointed as CFO of the ABAA in September 2012, you moved up the ranks and became the first female CEO of ABAA in August 2019. What do you feel most proud of in your personal life?
After some long hours, I get the most gratification from going home and spending time with my 12-year-old daughter. In many ways, she is my motivation and I am extremely proud of the role I am playing in her life. To be able to balance work and motherhood has been a challenge but she is a wonderful child, very kind and I am proud of the person that I am raising. At the end of the day, sometimes that’s what matters most. But its good that in my professional life and my personal life, I can influence positively those around me.
What is your final message for Miami Herald readers who consider Antigua & Barbuda as a potential investment destination or trading partner?
Antigua and Barbuda is an extremely beautiful island. You will experience it when you fly over. Its paradise. We are forerunners in the hospitality business in the region so we know better than most how to welcome visitors and what it takes to make them feel at home. It’s a good time to visit or seek out our shores for business. The economy is expanding and we are getting a lot of attention from business interests across the globe. The food is to die for, the nightlife is just what you expect for a small island and you can move about without a worry in the world, its one of the safest destinations in the Caribbean. As if here isn’t a getaway enough, our sister island Barbuda is just a skip across the pond with some of the most beautiful pink sandy beaches in the world. As an investor, Antigua is an excellent option as a second home. We look forward to welcoming you at the VC Bird International.