The new CEO of the Halifax International Airport Authority shares her big plans to enhance the visitor experience
Joyce Carter remembers the excitement of her first plane ride as if it was yesterday. It was a Grade 10 exchange trip to Morden, Manitoba. She and a dozen giddy classmates from the Acadian fishing community of L’Ardoise, Richmond County (Cape Breton Island) had packed a school bus before dawn and set off on the adventure of their young lives.
“When we finally reached the airport terminal, we were almost beyond words. I remember thinking how big it was and how all our shrieks and laughter echoed down the hallways as we headed to the plane.”
The recently-minted president and CEO of the Halifax International Airport Authority has since taken countless flights to the biggest airports on the planet, but she insists she still feels that same giddy excitement as she pushes daily through the terminal’s revolving door.
“I love my job. I love the people. I love the fact that there are no two days alike.”
Frequent travellers to Halifax can argue the terminal is never the same for two days in a row either. For more than a decade it seems pylons and scaffolding were part of the amenities as buildings expanded, lobbies refreshed and runways lengthened to accommodate larger and heavier planes. A $45-million renovation to the airport’s check-in hall – complete with high tech self-serve ticket machines and bag drop – was unveiled in July.
Sitting in her dark and uncluttered third-floor office (one of the few places untouched in 15 years of continual construction), Carter nods when asked about the $500 million spent on renovations and improvements since 2000. “There have been a few changes, haven’t there?” she says, a smile touching her lips. “When you are redefining what an airport can be, you kick up a little dust.”
When Carter joined the Halifax International Airport Authority in 1999 as vice-president of finance, Transport Canada was getting out of the airport business, transferring responsibility for management, operations and development to autonomous authorities. Halifax was the last major airport to be divested, so little had been done in the way of maintenance for several years.
“We took over a facility that was able to process one million passengers. We’re now processing more than three times that,” says Carter proudly. “And it’s no longer just a place where planes take off and land. It’s a centre for trade and commerce and a catalyst for development.”
Independent reports peg the airport’s economic impact at a whopping $1.3 billion annually, with a workforce of 5,500 (roughly the size of the town of Kentville) tied directly to companies like I.M.P. Group International, Air Canada and Air Canada Jazz. As the seventh-largest airport in Canada, it sees more than 3.6 million passengers push through the terminal’s glass doors annually and cargo services empty airplane bellies of more than 29,500 tonnes of cargo each year.
For passengers with time to spare before passing through security, there’s now far more than just a double-double from Timmy’s to help pass the time. Visitors can shop at several boutiques that surround an elaborate fountain and central stone courtyard, business executives can pitch business ideas over a meal at a restaurant, and families can search out the perfect souvenir at a recently opened art gallery. A drink, overnight stay or afternoon nap are just steps away at the chic new $27-million Alt Hotel.
Although Halifax is a stark contrast to the 90-million passenger South Korean airport Carter recently visited, she is pleased with her “little airport than can” and has high hopes for five, 10 and 20-year plans to develop opportunities away from the main terminal.
A chartered accountant by profession, Carter developed a passion for business watching her parents, Leonard and Delina, manage a pulp mill and landscaping business from the family dining room table. She remembers sneaking around corners to listen to conversations with lawyers and peeking through half-opened doors, fascinated by auditors pouring through pages of numbers.
“After they left, that’s when we had dinner,” she says. “It was not an easy life, but people in the community depended on them, and they worked hard not to disappoint. There’s no question the values my dad passed on to me, continue to shape my life today.”
As just the second person to join the airport authority (her airport identification number is 002), Carter has had a front row seat as the industry evolved through terrorist threats, carrier bankruptcies and both lavish and no thrills travel phases. Prior to becoming CEO in March, she held increasingly senior positions, including chief financial officer and chief strategy officer.
Wadih Fares, a prominent Halifax developer and vice-chair of the authority’s 13-member board, says Carter’s financial acumen was apparent from their first meeting eight years ago. “I was new on the board and she was the chief financial officer at the time. I remember her report was concise and very ‘profit aware’. She was cautious of the bottom line, and as a businessman, I liked that. It really helped me settle in.”
Hundreds of millions in construction and renovation have been carried out since that first meeting and Carter has shown an amazing ability to predict the financial impact of improvements.
Carter is more than just financially savvy, says Nancy Phillips, executive director of the Halifax Gateway Council. She’s also got game when it comes to people skills. “She’s very together. She’s calm and quiet. She doesn’t need to be loud to command a room,” says Phillips.
Working for two terms as chair of the Gateway Council, Carter has led transportation leaders in the road, rail, air and sea sectors from rancorous clashing agendas to a group that speaks with a single voice, pushing Halifax as the preferred eastern gateway to North America.
“The Gateway really came into its own under her leadership. We worked through a detailed five-year plan and we’ve been able to build a voice locally, nationally and now internationally.”
Whether it’s her style or her position as airport authority CEO, Phillips says Carter has been able to flex political muscle for the group.
“She can take our key priorities and expose them to government in a way they understand. She can get us into the premier’s office. She can get us an appointment in economic development. She can open doors.”
Carter starts her day early with an 8 a.m. executive meeting. Her “work-hard playhard team” reviews operations from the previous day and charts progress on the authority’s six goals: superior service, satisfied staff, air traffic growth, revenue diversification, safety and environmental excellence, and improved facilities.
At a recent mid-summer morning briefing, Carter was an enthusiastic cheerleader for the airport’s customer service training program, The Stanfield Way. Created to develop a culture of superior service, the effort brings together staff from airlines, restaurants and retail outlets, and focuses them on the common needs of airport passengers and visitors. In the past two years, nearly 500 airport staff members have graduated from the program.
It has garnered such a strong international reputation that the authority’s communications point man, Peter Spurway, was recently invited to speak about the program at a conference in Shanghai, China.
When the executive meeting wraps up, Carter’s morning ritual includes a walk through the terminal where she will stop to talk with RCMP officers, flight attendants, passengers, shop owners or tartan-clad volunteers who offer comfort and direction to new travellers. She’s proud to say her mother was a volunteer with the “tartan team” for a decade.
“It’s a community and this is where you find out how you are really doing,” she says. “It’s the favorite part of my day.”
Back in her office later, she’s looking for ways to drive air traffic. Three new charter services were recently introduced, but air traffic dipped in 2013 as Air Canada and WestJet cut back on their capacity, sending smaller planes to the region.
She believes the airlines understand they cut too deeply and she’s confident efforts to woo their newest airlines (WestJet’s regional airline Encore and Air Canada’s leisure airline Rouge) will pay off in 2015.
As noon approaches, Carter scoots home to nearby Fall River to check on her three children planning a family water skiing adventure. She takes out one of her mother’s homemade meat pies – a tasty nod to her Acadian heritage – and heads into the city for a Mental Health Foundation of Nova Scotia fundraising luncheon.
Carter has led the foundation board for eight years. It’s a very personal undertaking, tied to a time in her 20s when she watched a family member struggle with depression, its stigma and a deplorable lack of services beyond placement in the long, dark corridors of the Nova Scotia Hospital.
“When they asked me to join the board, I jumped at the opportunity. I thought if there is something I can do to change the stigma, I’m going to do that.”
By late afternoon Carter is meeting with her team, pouring over the latest planned road realignment that will eliminate traffic congestion at peak hours and provide more retail opportunities for the airport’s community of workers.
Through the office window, workers with chainsaws can be seen carrying out the initial clearing.
“I guess our guests are going to be seeing pylons for a little while longer,” she says with a smile.