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Business soars at city airport. $19 million in renovations officially open next Thursday

Friday, October 31, 2003 - 00:00

Steve Baker, president and CEO of the London International Airport, says overseeing the facility's transformation into a top-notch, customer service-driven business has been one of the most rewarding experiences of his 30-year career. The renovated terminal will officially open next Thursday, Nov. 6.

While it has taken a lot of planning, hard work and some $19 million, London International Airport has just about reached the end of a five-year redevelopment which management hopes will make it a central part of the city's economy.

Since 1998, the 64-year-old airport has been operated by the Greater London International Airport Authority (GLIAA) under an 80-year lease from the federal government.

The first order of business for the new authority was planning not only a physical remodeling of the entire facility, but on how to integrate the airport into London's business and cultural communities.

"We saw an opportunity (five years ago) to reposition and remarket this airport," says airport authority president and CEO Steve Baker. "We came up with a strategic plan and I believe our vision has carried us through to where we are today. Today it's a much different airport than it was in the past. We have a well thought out plan to get people to the airport and enjoy the experience while they are here."

Official opening ceremonies of the remodelled airport terminal will be held next Thursday, Nov. 6. The invitation-only event takes place at 10:30 a.m.

What would eventually become the London International Airport began life as a military airbase under the British Commonwealth Training Plan in 1939. Construction of a new terminal building was completed by the federal department of transportation in 1964.

In 1998 the federal government leased the airport to the authority, a not-for-profit organization which has full operational and financial control under the federal government's national airports policy.

The board of directors of the airport authority provides governance to the facility and the members are nominated by various entities representing the community. The nominating entities include the federal and provincial governments, City of London, the London Chamber of Commerce and the airport authority board.

"The airport was under capitalized, inconvenient and had no direct jet service. We recognized right away all that had to change," Mr. Baker says. "There were delays, baggage problems, poor amenities and during peak times, significant lineups. There was no question it was a significant challenge."

To combat such a challenge, Mr. Baker says not only did the authority do a great deal of planning, but it also enlisted significant input from the airport customers - the travellers who knew first hand what the facility was most in need of.

"That meant we needed a plan, a vision, to turn things around. We looked at what we wanted the end result to be and worked back from that," Mr. Baker says. "We did surveys, passenger interviews; we talked to our airlines, to travel agents, our corporate travelers. All that input went into creating our vision."

A great deal of work has been done since the renovation began in April, 2002.

Among the changes, the terminal building has been almost completely redeveloped and has been expanded from 32,000 to 76,000 sq. ft. with expanded arrival and departure areas.

Also included in the renovation were covered walkways to eight gate positions, two jet loading bridges, a Tim Hortons, an eatery bar and gift shop, a large concourse area and pre-boarding lounge, covered curbside passenger drop-off area and wireless internet access.

"Really if I had my preference we would have demolished the whole building and started over," Mr. Baker says. "For two years we really had to operate an airport while rebuilding all around. I equate it to trying to change a tire while driving down the road. About all that remains are the central core (of the terminal building), the utilities and the control tower. Everything else has been rebuilt and is state of the art."

And while the $19 million spent on physical renovations can hardly be ignored, the greater challenge might have been in changing the perception of the airport both inside and outside of London.

"This airport wasn't a selling feature to attract new business to the city and it was not something people were proud of," Mr. Baker says. "We knew we had to build a better building, we had to market it better, be more business like. We wanted to make it an economic tool for the city of London. And it makes me proud to know we have worked very hard to achieve that."

The hard work seems to have paid off as London International Airport now ranks as the 12th busiest passenger airport in Canada and the 11th busiest airport as measured by aircraft take-offs and landings.

The economic importance of the airport can be seen most simply by looking at land surrounding the facility.

There are currently some 47 independent businesses located on the airport property, Mr. Baker says; everything from flight schools to air freight businesses, manufactures, a variety of aviation-related businesses.

The airport and surrounding businesses generate an economic impact to the area in excess of $220 million while employing some 1,000 people. The airport ranks in the top 10 employers in the London area.

The public profile of the facility was recently further strengthen through a fundraiser held at Diamond Aircraft, one of the businesses located on the airport. Diamond made available its hangar building for the Banger in the Hangar - a charity fundraiser, put on by the Spirit Foundation, and benefiting Orchestra London and the Grand Theatre.

Mr. Baker says it is events such as this which help raise the profile of the airport and go a long way to increasing its profile to local residents.

"We were so pleased Diamond donated their building to Banger in the Hangar. It's a way we can give back to the community," Mr. Baker says. "We believe that by having a good organization, by having strategic planning and being more business like we can not only be a part of the community, but be a leader in the community."

Source: The Londoner. October 2003: "Business soars at city airport" By SEAN MEYER The Londoner

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