Turks & Caicos Islands Airports Authority – Transforming Turks & Caicos

We learn how the Turks and Caicos Islands Airport Authority took the organisation through an astonishing turnaround, and ultimately discover the story is all about people.

The Turks and Caicos Islands Airports Authority is responsible for the design, construction, management, and operation of six airports in the Turks and Caicos Islands, five of which are fully operational. Their main airport is the Providenciales International, where the majority of the islands’ international travel originates from and travels through and busy days are pretty much every day of the week, but each of the other airports on the islands performs its own role.

South Caicos also has an international airport with regulatory restriction, Grand Turk also has an International airport, but with few international flights,” explains John Smith, the Authority’s CEO. “Salt Cay aerodrome just completed a full rehabilitation. It’s not an international airport but is still key for economic growth, and because of its sea locked location, medical emergencies can only be catered to by air; sometimes the ocean is not favourable for boat traffic. We have airports on Middle Caicos that’s not operational, and North Caicos where we have suspended the certificate but maintained it to facilitate medical emergency operations.”

The airport authority is responsible for air traffic control, security, fire services, and all other airport operations, differentiating it from airport authorities in other locations where airport authorities aren’t responsible for air traffic control or security. However, it is also unique in terms of the huge turnaround the organisation has undergone over the last decade.

The Big Turnaround

“In 2007 the Airports Authority was losing in the order $3.5 million a year,” Smith recalls. “We restructured the organisation, recovering it from where it was and rebuilding it. Nine years later we were generating revenues in the order of $37 million. Within ten years we did a $40 million turnaround, but importantly it was done with engagement and development of local people. We offered training and assisted staff in their development.”

Taking the Turks and Caicos Islands Airports Authority and transforming it from an organisation that was losing millions to one turning a profit of tens of millions was not a task that could be done alone. Close collaboration was required with Turks and Caicos Islands Hotel Association, Tourist Board and Government.

“When we introduced the new routes, new airline incentive scheme to attract additional airlines, we also collaborated with the Hotel Association on introducing additional rooms to accommodate people. Their assistance with the marketing of the destination, offered a much broader marketing platform than that of the airline when combined with that of the Tourist Board” Smith recalls. “the resultant increase in passenger numbers/revenue provided the funds that enabled the improvement of the facility with the extension of the runway. We successfully placed a moratorium on increases in fees, working closely with financial institutions to manage interest rate cost.”

It was an effort not just to make the island’s airports more profitable, but also more self-sufficient.

“We were able to do more things inhouse; the training of our air traffic controllers, for instance,” Smith points out. “Instead of having to send one or two individuals offshore for training we were bringing the training to the individuals and having it onshore allowing more people to be trained.”

It is this, the human capital development that the airports’ authority is most proud of, that Smith cites as the organisation’s biggest achievement.

“We look beyond the financial side, the ‘miracle’ turnaround and take more pride in the development of our local human resources. I’m proud of the engagement of predominantly local individuals to be able to do that,” Smith says. “That, in my opinion, makes it more sustainable. The position we are in at the moment, it’s a nice place to be. We are in a position where we can say we are better off than we were, noting that there remain lots to be done, to achieve our ultimate goal. Our Fire Services Manager and Training Manager are fully qualified international aerodrome fire training instructors.”

Today finding and recruiting the right people remains a challenge, but it’s one that the organisation is well equipped to overcome.

“When we find individuals with the basic requirements we invest considerably in their training. Our Executive team members are encouraged to attend at least two continuous professional development initiatives in every 12 months,” Smith says. “That allows them to get an understanding of what’s happening in the industry and let them network better and it keeps them motivated and developing.”

New Challenges

While the organisation has seen an astonishing improvement in its fortunes and has built the foundations for generations of local talent, the Turks and Caicos Islands Airports Authority still faces challenges, particularly with regards to regulations and procurement.

“The main challenge is the procurement process which has changed and makes it challenging at times to respond to matters as one needs to in an efficient, effective and timely manner,” Smith admits. “In aviation, we often find some equipment that is made by one manufacturer, and that is the only person you can go to because they will have a reasonable supply and you can only get equipment or supplies from them. Notwithstanding this, you need to first obtain approval to procure it through a single source. In addition to this, the rules state that all assets must go to tender. From a financial point of view, most items are assets. It conflicts with the criteria set by relevant regulatory and other bodies that say you need a degree of autonomy to be effective, efficient and maintain compliance. This continues to be a challenge; however, we have to and are working in the framework to see how we can work more effectively and efficiently.”

“You try as much as possible to be as proactive as you can but in this industry, if something unforeseen breaks you have to react, but you have to first write to someone else to react and that delays things,” Smith says. “So as much as we can we try to put agreements in place but even they are managed by someone else. We try to work with the system as much as possible to satisfy the requirements we need in the industry.”

This is becoming all the more important, as the organisation is about to undergo its next big transformation.

“At the moment we’re moving out of our entrepreneurial phase. We’ve grown to a point where our next focus is putting more structure in place, performing a comprehensive on review of our salary/compensation structure, working with independent consultants to assist us in that and form the basis of what we need to do to go forward,” says Smith.

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