As of April, the man at the helm of the world’s busiest airport since the departure of previous General Manager Louis Miller has been released to institute his own vision.
That vision just got a boost from Atlanta City Council on June 16 when it confirmed Miguel Southwell as the new general manager of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport.
For Mr. Southwell, it goes far beyond the fences circling the airport.
“I believe the primary purpose of an airport is to serve as the main economic development tool for the surrounding community and working closely with the mayor and council, we will strive to attract more businesses and jobs to Atlanta,” he said of his official appointment.
The new leader is an old face in Atlanta, having spent 11 years at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport starting in 1990 before moving to Miami International Airport for more than a decade.
He returned in 2013 to head up business development, three years after Mr. Miller was picked over him and another candidate for the top job. This year he’s tasked with finishing out the airport’s new master plan, which will guide its development through 2030.
Mr. Southwell is soft-spoken, but each word is carefully calculated, laced with the quiet intensity of a man that sees his job as a calling to a grander mission. In close conversation, he exudes passion and confidence without a hint of bravado.
Learn about his early life, and it’s easy to see how he blends humility with the hard-driving ambition. The youngest of 12 children born to a cotton farmer in the Caribbean island of Antigua, Mr. Southwell remembers his childhood fondly, mostly because he and his siblings “didn’t know we were poor.”
Aviation became his way out, but also his way back into the developing world. In addition to other roles at the organization, he now heads Airports Council International’s ACI Fund, a $1 million endowment that funds training for airport leaders in less-developed nations.
For the avid gardener, carpenter and cook, it’s all about helping them use an extraordinary tool for its intended result: job generation.
“If you don’t know how to use a hammer you’re not going to be able to build anything,” he told Global Atlanta in an interview.
He wants to nail home that same message in Atlanta. While it has had the world’s busiest airport for 16 years, Mr. Southwell admitted this massive tool hasn’t always been used optimally toward its main function: the economic development of the metro area.
“Some traditional airport people view airports as a plant where you process planes and passengers,” he said. “That’s not the main function of an airport. The main function of an airport in any community is to be that community’s main tool for growing wealth.”
That mandate takes on many forms. As a transit hub, the airport draws large companies that depend on it to connect with employees and customers nationally and internationally. Georgia is now home to 16 Fortune 500 companies.
“Any time you look at any relocation criteria for any major corporation, among the top two things is access to direct air transportation for my people and my goods. That’s what airports are about,” Mr. Southwell said.
While it happens organically – the airport’s impact on the region is already estimated at $32.5 billion – Mr. Southwell is convinced that a more strategic push for new routes in collaboration with the mayor’s office, local economic development agencies and the Atlanta Convention and Visitors Bureau would yield better results, particularly in attracting more foreign investment.
Atlanta maintained its title as the world’s busiest airport last year, but its overall numbers shrank for the first time in many years by 1.1 percent to 94.4 million. While Beijing’s growth rates have also slowed, the Chinese capital’s main airport has been nipping at Hartsfield-Jackson’s heels in recent years.
Mr. Southwell aims to restructure the makeup of passenger traffic even as he continues growing the pie itself. He believes Atlanta should maintain its role as a transit hub even as it seeks to win more destination travelers, who are more lucrative because they get out into the city and spend money at malls, hotels and restaurants.
On the domestic front, Atlanta does relatively well, hosting sporting events and conventions that helped the city draw upwards of 40 million visitors last year, Mayor Kasim Reed has said recently.
But about 70 million of Hartsfield-Jackson’s 94.4 million passengers never get outside its walls. They drive landing fees and concession revenues but fail to send more significant ripple effects through the community. It’s a huge untapped pool of opportunity, Mr. Southwell said.
“The big bang for the buck comes from the (origin-and-destination) passengers, and that’s what we need to grow, and we need to use the marketing efforts associated with these connecting passengers to promote the community,” he said. “You need those passengers to see something, hear something, taste something, smell to something to get them really interested in Atlanta.”
International still remains a small proportion of the total. Even after posting 4 percent growth in a year of overall decline, the airport hosted just 10.24 million overseas passengers in 2013.
That’s doesn’t sound too shabby until compared with competitors that host far fewer passengers overall. Miami draws half of its 40 million annual passengers from other countries. The same is true for New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, the largest global gateway in the U.S., which processes 50 million passengers a year, the majority of them from outside the country.
Even more telling for Atlanta, a Brookings Institution analysis last year showed that only 3 million of Atlanta’s international passengers were starting or finishing their journeys here, all but proving that Atlanta is more of a funnel for visitors than a sought-after destination. In Los Angeles, by comparison, that number is 15 million.
Even before he got the official nod as GM, Mr. Southwell began laying the groundwork for an aggressive route-development strategy that mixes community engagement with financial incentives.
In April, the Atlanta City Council approved the airport’s plan to allocate $2 million annually for five years from the airport’s general fund to urge airlines to begin new nonstop cargo or passenger service to Atlanta from overseas.
For qualifying flights, the airport will waive landing fees for one year, saving participating airlines in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. The airport will also provide up to $25,000 in promotional funds to publicize the route.
Airlines that add new frequencies to existing flights in “emerging” and “premium” markets like the BRICs emerging economies, would also be eligible for the incentives, said Jason Terreri, interim director of new business development.
Atlanta’s behemoth, Delta Air Lines Inc., was involved in the consultations and stands to benefit significantly as it continues its global expansion, Mr. Terreri said.
He said incentives are common in the aviation world, as they help airlines defray the costs of entering an uncertain market. Atlanta hadn’t used them before.
“(Airlines) look at is this is a way the airport gets some skin in the game to get them to the airport,” he told Global Atlanta.
The incentives are to be granted on a first-come, first-served basis. Once the $2 million is exhausted, there’s no more for the rest of that year, Mr. Terreri said.
Becoming an Airport City
Mr. Southwell was also front and center during the recent launch of the Atlanta Aerotropolis Alliance, an initiative that should help flesh out his inclusive vision for an airport-area renaissance.
The Atlanta Regional Commission led the formation of the alliance, which emerged out of a task force that brought together airport-area stakeholders to explore community economic development models.
The task force has sought to learn from successful “aerotropolis” initiatives in domestic cities like Memphis and Detroit and international hubs like Paris Charles de Gaulle.
Porsche Cars North America‘s relocation to the airport area was the key catalyst for the initiative, and Porsche General Counsel Joseph Folz has been tapped to lead the alliance’s 20-member organizing board.
Mr. Folz has first hand experience with the airport’s convening power. It brought the right people together to help Porsche buy an “impossible” piece of land near Interstate 75 that was under multiple jurisdictions. The company is now building its headquarters and test track, which are scheduled to open later this year.
“We have a tremendous opportunity to build upon the asset of having the world’s busiest airport to pursue development of our own world-class aerotropolis. I am pleased and honored to lead this effort,” he said in a statement at the aerotropolis launch in March.
There, Mr. Southwell was also clear that the airport would do everything in its power to spur along the alliance.
“I believe that when you say that an airport is the No. 1 economic engine of the community, it needs to live up to that. It needs to act like it, but with a recognition that the airport is just one of several organizations that will be required – required – to make that happen. The airport should take a co-lead and that’s where a lot of the time is going to be spent, building those partnerships.”
To Mr. Southwell, who led negotiations involving billions of dollars in projects in Miami, foreign investors often choose where they do business based on where they have the strongest relationships.
He recently traveled with Mr. Reed on a business development mission to Brazil, where the airport sponsored a “Why Atlanta” seminar at the American Chamber of Commerce Rio de Janeiro.
In a lighthearted way, he took aim at Miami International Airport, his former employer and Atlanta’s chief rival for the affections of Brazilian investors. He urged Brazilians to think of MIA not as their preferred gateway airport, but instead as “My Interest in Atlanta” and later, “My Investment in Atlanta.”
Asked by Global Atlanta (also traveling with the delegation) how the recently announced route incentives would aid his sales pitch, he responded with his characteristic confidence and a winsome smile.
“We’re just getting started.”