Renato Camacho is exactly where he’s worked to be. The new(ish) president and CEO of the Akron-Canton Airport has had his eye on an opportunity to work with an airport possibly as far back as his days as a child in the Bronx.
There, he would catch a ride on the city bus his father drove and, where its route terminated across the water from LaGuardia Airport, they would sit and watch the jets take off and land. These experiences helped coalesce his interests in civil engineering and, indirectly, aviation.
But, after 25 years working in the aviation and transportation engineering sectors, including time with the City of Cleveland’s Department of Port Control and the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, Camacho arrives at Akron-Canton as it’s dealing with a six-year slide in passenger traffic after carrier mergers and hub consolidations led to carrier losses. It’s also a time when airlines, dealing with their own challenges, are increasingly choosey, which means airports need to compete more aggressively for their business.
And so while Camacho is happy to have his shot at running an airport, he’s arrived during a trying time for the business.
It happens. Carriers leave airports. Camacho has seen it before. When United Airlines substantially reduced its flying from Cleveland Hopkins International Airport in early 2014, it was a newsworthy event. Camacho, at the time, was working for the Cleveland Department of Port Control, where he was chief of planning and engineering. He was part of the team that had to deal with the fallout from United’s decision when the carrier dropped 60 percent of its average daily departures from Cleveland Hopkins. From 2013 to 2014, passenger volume dropped 16 percent, from a little more than 9 million to 7.6 million.
The airport worked to recapture that traffic by courting airlines that were looking for new opportunities. One of those was Southwest Airlines, which ultimately left Akron-Canton and moved its flights to Cleveland. Cleveland and Akron, however, aren’t best characterized as rivals. Competition for carriers is broader than that.
“They have to maximize their profit margins, so they’re really hyper-focused on which parts of the country they want to focus on because they can move an aircraft anywhere they want,” Camacho says.
Airline consolidation over the years has limited the opportunities for airports such as Akron-Canton to acquire air service. Some carriers will only service certain markets, while others won’t go where they’re pitted against a direct competitor and are likely to get locked into race-to-the-bottom pricing.
Considering the heightened level of competition, capital improvements have become an increasingly important factor for airports in attracting carriers.
“You need a state of good repair,” he says. “You need runways and taxiways and lights, and chillers and boilers that are going to work for our mutual passengers. That helps make the case.”
Hence the gate replacement project that’s winding down at Akron-Canton, which Camacho says is a perfect example of that positioning. It’s part of the airport’s $240 million master plan of capital investments and improvements, launched before Camacho took on his current role. The gates are expected to position the airport for future opportunities for air service and partnerships with air carriers, but that’s only part of the pitch.
Making the case
Understanding the travel habits of the community informs Akron-Canton’s pitch to carriers, for which the size of their aircraft and the destinations they want to fly to should ideally match traveler data the airport collects. Through a dialogue with area businesses, Camacho is able to gather data that build the case to carriers for additional services that match the community’s needs.
Collecting that data has Camacho and others at the airport getting involved with local chambers of commerce, development boards, visitors bureaus and other business-oriented organizations, as well as talking directly to area businesses — and not just the weighty voices of the area Fortune 500s, but also those of mid-market and small companies that do a lot of traveling.
“The airlines love to see data that are black and white. They don’t like to see that a company might fly here, a company may fly there,” he says.
Camacho and outgoing CEO Rick McQueen toured the communities surrounding the airport. He held 50 to 60 meetings in a three-month window with companies and organizations to gain their perspectives and a sense of their needs, while at the same time getting the message out about the airport’s key initiatives and efforts.
“It’s not my airport. It’s the community’s airport,” Camacho says.
Through conversations with companies, it has become clear to Camacho that the last thing business travelers want to do after a long and taxing trip is to drive an hour and a half home. And that’s helped focus the airport’s efforts on creating connections, one of which has brought flights from the airport to Houston that Camacho says have been very popular with the business community.
“That’s why we keep asking them for their travel habits and sharing that information with the airlines, and that’s what got us (the) Houston service. We continue to have those types of discussions with them about potential destinations,” he says.
Business community aside, there were other, equally important communities that Camacho wanted to connect with early in his tenure. For example, when he arrived at Akron-Canton Airport in October 2018, he wanted to connect with the airport’s employee community to get a sense of the existing culture. He wanted to understand why the employees tended to have long tenures with the airport and why they had such a commitment to the facility. It was also an opportunity for them to get comfortable with him.
“The very first day I had an employee luncheon with everyone, and I told them, ‘What you see is what you get.’ I’m very transparent. I’m very open, very communicative. I want that engagement from them, and it’s worked out ever since,” he says.
Camacho has further engaged employees as he’s set out to create a North Star of sorts for the airport’s growth under his guidance. He’s working with the airport’s management team to collect data for a five-year plan, which includes considerations for capital improvements, financial strategy, operations, marketing and innovations. The plan hasn’t been publicized as of this writing, but Camacho has assigned the managers of each department to prioritize over the next five years what they respectively think are their top projects or initiatives, how much they’re likely to cost, how long they might take to be implemented and the estimated return on investment.
“That’s the notion,” he says. “It’s making sure that we’re positioning us for the next several years in those various areas, keeping us in a state of good repair, if there are revenue generation opportunities, if there are non-aeronautical revenues, whether it’s through our concessions program, parking product or the fees we collect from the rental car facilities, among other things. Are there other opportunities to collect revenues, because once we collect non-aeronautical revenues, that lowers the cost for the airlines to operate here, and that’s great.”
Non-aeronautical revenue — any money brought in from things that don’t fly — accounts for some 60 to 70 percent of Akron-Canton’s revenue, which means the remainder is from passenger fees and rents collected from the airlines. Having the majority of revenue from non-aeronautical sources is ideal, and Camacho would like to see that figure go up.
Turning ideas into reality was a big part of what drew Camacho to the profession of civil engineering. He liked that the projects under his purview helped people, and how they connected so many seemingly disparate parts together for a common goal. And at the Akron-Canton Airport, he’s working to do just that — solve not just the airport’s problems but those of area stakeholders, by connecting his community to the world.
» Data drive results.
» Connect with stakeholders to curate ideas.
» Perfect your pitch to win business.