The Hard Sell

By eweek  |  Posted 2004-07-13 Print this article Print

The Hard Sell

"It was an interesting few months when I first arrived," says Burke, who was hired by Lou Turpen, CEO of GTAA. "In an IT sense, the airport wasnt in the mainstream, and Air Canada felt they needed to be self-sufficient." Montreal-based Air Canada, Canadas largest commercial jet carrier, accounts for 60 percent of air traffic at Toronto Pearson, making it the GTAAs largest customer by far. Airlines that dominate their hubs can be fiercely resistant to switching to common-use facilities, fearing the loss of their competitive advantage. Air Canada was no different. Because the airline felt that its existing network was superior to those of its competitors, they saw no incentive to level the playing field. "It was a hard sell," recalls John Segaert, general manager of hub development in Toronto for Air Canada. "There were a number of concerns at different levels. Some people didnt really understand the technology, and when they heard common use they thought it meant lowest common denominator, a somehow lesser technology to what we were already using."

Its hard to blame Air Canada for its trepidation. After all, the GTAA was essentially asking the airline to ditch its existing technology investment at its biggest hub, allow competitors to access its gates and ticket counters, and relinquish control of a large chunk of its ground operations to a seven-year-old, unproven airport authority.

The selling process began the moment Turpen brought Burke over from Heathrow. "We wanted to minimize infrastructure, and introduce some new ideas and synergies," recalls Turpen. "So I started asking around in Asia, where most of the airports are common use, Who is the best person to talk to? and they all said Jim Burke." Given that hed had success selling British Airways on the concept at Heathrow, Turpen felt confident that Burke could convince Air Canada to do the same.

Burke began by working with Air Canadas John Segaert to painstakingly present the concept, detail the technology and prove the cost savings. "You have to have certain selling skills, but really it is a process of explaining it over and over again to the airport tenants, because in this model, they are going to become our customers," Burke says. After some time, Burkes calm reassurance and earnest yet dogged pursuit sold Segaert, who then became the common-use advocate within Air Canada, pushing the idea relentlessly to upper management. Segaert says that Burkes patience and experience ultimately convinced him.

"Jim is a guy with a lot of experience in the industry. He understood Air Canadas needs and concerns, and addressed each one," says Segaert. "He was sincere and trustworthy, and he knew how to speak our language." What Burke did, essentially, was allow the model to speak for itself. Working for a not-for-profit agency, Burke didnt need to prove that he wasnt out to gouge the airlines by going to common use. In fact, most of the numbers involved in the transition, including what airlines would be billed to help cover the costs of building and maintaining the network, were shared with the airlines. "Our costs for moving into the new Terminal 1 would have been very similar had we done it ourselves," says Segaert.

Segaerts effort to sway his own upper management did not go as smoothly. It took him several months, he says, to convince the C-level executives at Air Canada to approve the plan. Though the financial and logistical advantages for Air Canada were plain, it still wasnt enough. Ultimately, though, the GTAA didnt have to get Air Canadas buy-in. The new Terminal 1 was going to be a state-of-the-art facility, far bigger and more efficient than the aging, sclerotic original. Turpen made it clear to Air Canada that if they wanted to use the facility, then they would have to accept the common-use platform. Says Turpen, "It turns out that we had the authority and really didnt need to ask anyone." Even so, Burke and Segaerts efforts to sell Air Canada on the idea were not wasted. If the carrier didnt save money on Pearsons opening day, it would in the months ahead.

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