Culture and values keep Vancouver Airport at the top
Global tech giants, the latest social media platform and some of the world’s most recognised consumer brands are usually what we expect to see on best-loved companies lists. But not in British Columbia (BC).
Vancouver International Airport is the third best-loved brand in the province and has been ranked by Skytrax as the best airport in North America for 10 years in a row.
It has been named one of BC’s top employers, one of the nation’s best diversity employers and even topped other Canadian companies for its twitter banter in 2018.
Vancouver served 25.9 million passengers in 2018 with 56 airlines connecting people and businesses to more than 125 non-stop destinations worldwide.
Vancouver Airport chief executive Craig Richmond is the driving force behind this award-winning airport, with the former Royal Canadian Air Force pilot overseeing its vision to become a world-class sustainable hub since 2013.
A focus on safety, efficiency and comfort earned him the 2016 Airport Council International North American Excellence in Visionary Leadership Award.
The airport’s strategic aviation industry leadership has been recognised with a global award from the CAPA Centre for Aviation and it has also been recognised as a world leader when it comes to accessibility.
In terms of what Richmond calls hard results, the airport is the most efficient in its size category in North America, has the lowest airline fees and charges of any major airport in Canada and has an AA credit rating. It also has the highest spend per passenger of any airport in North America.
Richmond will discuss a key ingredient in the airport’s success at this year’s Australian Airports Association (AAA) annual conference in the Gold Coast: values and culture.
Richmond notes that many people are focussed on technical issues and the bottom line is an issue for everyone.
“But if you don’t think about your culture, you’re doomed to fail,” he adds. “And if you get a good culture, you can get amazing results.
“It’s nothing ground-breaking, but I find that a lot of airport operators just tend to think in a very shallow way, if at all, about cultivating a good work culture.”
So how has that worked at Vancouver Airport?
To begin with, says Richmond, everybody working at the facility has shared values around safety, teamwork, accountability and innovation.
For example, every meeting from the board on down starts with the safety briefing.
“What I don’t want to do is give the impression that it’s a cultish thing,” he says. “It really isn’t, people buy into it quite happily.
“But that’s where it starts — having a shared set of values.”
What that has led to is innovation at the airport.
The airport chief cites the example of border control.
About 10 years ago, it became obvious to his team that there were never going to be enough officers at either Canadian border control or US pre-clearance facilities.
It looked at whether it could develop a kiosk that would automate the process.
The kiosks worked well in Vancouver and soon word spread to Chicago, where passengers were waiting up to three hours.
“They ordered 96 of our kiosks and dropped the waits to 20 minutes,” Richmond says. “An entire new business line was born.
“We’ve now sold 1735 kiosks in North America, Europe and the Caribbean and it shows no sign of slowing down.
“So just being a little innovative has turned into another revenue stream.”
The kiosks are now attracting interest from cruise and other transport companies.
The airport encourages everyone in the company to go to its innovation council with their ideas, which can fund proposals it deems worthy.
Some may be commercialised, and some won’t.
“But basically, anybody can come up with an idea,’’ Richmond says. “They might see a product, they might go to a show and they might hear something that another airport’s doing.”
The airport doesn’t sell anything it doesn’t use itself and its biggest marketing advantage is telling prospective customers to come and see it operation.
An advantage of this kind of system is better staff morale and engagement.
“We do engagement scores,” Richmond says. “We’re a unionised, 24-hour airport and we’re getting engagement scores that you normally get from high tech companies like electronic arts.
“People feel engaged and empowered and all those good things.”
Vancouver also makes sure it celebrates big and small wins, often with parties, to break up the monotony of the day-to-day airport grind.
“We realise that does put a bit of pressure on people so anything you do to make their day a little easier, a little more fun is well worth it,” Richmond says.
Also important, the airport chief says, is welding one culture from shift workers and nine-to-five office workers – a problem he sees as common to most big airports.
Vancouver’s shift workers refer to their office colleagues as “daywalkers” and Richmond concedes maintaining one culture is not easy.
“Nobody I think has ever cracked that code perfectly,” he adds. “We’re trying very hard and I do all kinds of video chats so people can watch at midnight.
“It is a constant battle but it’s one worth fighting because you don’t want two companies in one.”
These are just some of the ideas Richmond will expand upon in his keynote speech on Tuesday morning.
He is hoping to take questions afterwards but also urges people to approach him at lunch or evening drinks if they have queries.
Craig Richmond will speak from 10.15am at the AAA National Conference on Tuesday 19 November.
By Steve Creedy
About Steve Creedy
An award-winning journalist, Steve began covering aviation in the United States in the early nineties before returning to Australia later that decade and editing The Australian’s aviation section for 17 years. He is editor of Airline Ratings and has co-authored books on industry initiatives aimed at reducing greenhouse emissions.
Steve has joined the AAA to write interesting and informative editorial on the aviation industry.