C-Suite: Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport CEO Candace McGraw

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Image via Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport

Since 2011, Candace McGraw has been the CEO of CVG, where she has led a team that reversed nine consecutive years of passenger decline, turning the US airport into one of the fastest-growing in the country for both passenger and cargo traffic. Candace also serves as treasurer of the ACI World Governing Board and immediate past chair of Airports Council International–North America, and has been appointed to two federal advisory panels: NextGen Advisory Committee and Women in Aviation Advisory Board.

FAST FACTS
Years in the industry: 25
Frequent flight: CVG–DCA
Brand of suitcase: Tumi
Seatback or PED? PED
Passport stamp you wish you had: Russia

You’ve been CEO of CVG since 2011. What has been your biggest achievement in that time?
CVG had experienced nine consecutive years of passenger decline until we were able to reverse that trend in 2013. Once we were able to attract additional passenger carriers and diversify our business by focusing on cargo and land development, we were able to turn CVG into one of the fastest-growing airports in the US for both passenger and cargo traffic.

You were once an attorney. What’s something you learned in law school that continues to inform your work today? 
I am still a licensed attorney but haven’t practiced for a number of years. I keep my license, just in case. Law school hones your analytical skills, teaches you to appreciate and understand all sides of an argument and requires you to develop concise and clear arguments to support your position. All of which are important when juggling the interests of various airport stakeholders. One of my first-year professors taught us that clients are not paying you to know black-letter law – they are paying you for your judgment. 

The industry seemingly changed overnight with the spread of COVID-19. How did your job change in kind?
Pre-COVID-19, I spent the predominant amount of my day focused on planning for the future. We were considering some interesting domestic and international opportunities. With the pandemic, we had to immediately triage the situation, handle the potential health and safety concerns, adjust our budget and focus on day-to-day operations. I think we have now struck the right balance of handling the immediate issues while not losing sight of future opportunities for success.

Airlines have responded to the pandemic by canceling routes and grounding aircraft. What are airports like yours, whose costs are much more fixed, doing to ensure the economic survival of their business?
CVG has seen a number of ups and downs over the years. As a former hub airport, we recognized years ago that we needed to diversify our business in an attempt to become more “recession-proof.” We made certain to attract passenger carriers, focused on additional cargo expansion and embarked on non-aeronautical land development, making sure that our land-development program also supported retail, commercial and industrial uses. We were very cognizant to not have all of our eggs in one basket. With passenger service being hampered by the pandemic, we are fortunate to have ongoing cargo and land-rental revenues. Additionally, like all other airports, we have also cut our operating budget, frozen all hiring and deferred all non-essential capital projects.

What role has social media played in connecting with customers at a time when few are traveling? 
Social media has been a critical communications tool as it has allowed us to educate, build confidence and engage with customers. Our communications and customer experience teams recently partnered to go above and beyond for a passenger. They took to social media to find the owner of a stuffed animal that was left behind in our facilities. Our customers were asked to help in the online search and share this feel-good story. They were able to follow along as the stuffed animal enjoyed a behind-the-scenes tour of the airport and ultimately flew home to its owner, the six-year-old boy who had received the toy as an adoption present. There were smiles all around! As a residual benefit, we gained thousands of new and engaged followers, millions of impressions and an enormous amount of earned media exposure.

How important is cargo to CVG now, and what trends in this domain are you seeing?
Cargo is tremendously important to the success of CVG. As home to DHL’s global superhub for the Americas and the future hub for Amazon Prime Air, we are currently ranked as the seventh-largest cargo hub in North America. As both hubs continue to grow, I anticipate that our ranking will continue to increase. Pre-pandemic, cargo was approximately 60 percent of our landed weight. In the midst of the pandemic, cargo is about 85 percent of our landed weight. We are very thankful for the business. The cargo carriers are literally helping us keep our lights on! As cargo growth increases, there have also been a number of related businesses moving to our region. Those businesses are either suppliers to the carriers or companies that need to quickly get their products to market.

Does CVG remain on target with its Amazon Prime Air hub?
Construction remains on target for completion, with Phase 1 anticipated to be operational for the 2021 holiday season. The hub comprises two large parcels: the southern parcel of 650 acres and a northern parcel of 440 acres. The southern parcel has been cleared, and construction work on the initial phase of the sort facility and ramp is ongoing. After the first phase is operational, Amazon is anticipating to complete development of the entire southern parcel. It may take another four to five years for completion. However, I can watch the construction from my office window – and I
have never seen a project move so quickly.  

Where do you hope to see CVG in 2030? 
In 2030, CVG will be recognized as a catalyst that positively transforms our region and the broader aviation industry. It will continue to be forward-leaning and resilient. However, by that time, I anticipate I will be retired and cheering on Team CVG from the sidelines.

How CVG is Keeping up with the Pandemic

Photos: Brian McGowan, Unsplash; CVG Airport; Avidbots

Boosting Protocols on the Ground
CVG has doubled the number of hand-sanitizer stations, installed plexiglass guards at ticket counters and gate holds and is regularly wiping down high-touchpoint areas and using autonomous floor-cleaning technology. “The airport has placed friendly reminders throughout our facilities for travelers to wear face masks, physically distance and travel only when feeling well,” McGraw says.

Launching “Fly Healthy” Online
On this new section of the airport’s website, travelers can watch video demonstrations of the enhanced cleaning procedures; read updates related to parking, security and concessions; and access links to important resources, such as airline and state-level guidance, allowing them to educate themselves about any restrictions applicable to their trip. “We created the Fly Healthy section on our website to allow travelers to research and plan their trip to feel comfortable and confident before leaving home,” McGraw says.

Embracing New Technologies
In early 2020, prior to the pandemic, CVG launched Avidbots’ autonomous cleaning robot, Neo, which McGraw says has become a valuable resource that is now deployed three to four times per day. It is also testing a thermographic gateway screener, from Fazing Labs, that uses infrared capabilities and artificial intelligence to obtain data and plan for future scenarios. “Over the last several years, CVG has leaned heavily into technology to enhance the customer experience,” McGraw says. “But the pandemic is heightening the adoption of additional solutions.” 

This article was originally published in the 10.4 November/December issue of APEX Experience magazine.

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