Meet the ACI World Governing Board: Interview with Deborah Flint, President & CEO of Greater Toronto Airports Authority

Sabrina Guerrieri by Sabrina Guerrieri | Sep 1, 2022

Over the course of the year, readers of ACI Insights will have the opportunity to meet members of the ACI World Governing Board (WGB). This article features Deborah Flint, President & CEO of Greater Toronto Airports Authority.

1. What are some of the exciting aspects of working at your airport and in the aviation industry right now?

Restart of air travel

We are living in one of the most dramatic eras in the history of the aviation industry. Never before have airports had to change from a state of being almost completely shut down to a state of being open to high travel demands in such a short amount of time. This is a unique moment in time as we transition out of a pandemic and invest in a better future.

The pandemic recovery has demonstrated that turning an industry off is much less complicated than turning one back on. Canada is not alone; airports worldwide are struggling with similar challenges as they begin to build back from the pandemic.

As Canada’s largest airport, the situation is a bit more complex as it is home to over 400+ organizations. With such a large number of partners operating in Pearson, it takes a team effort to improve the airport experience for passengers.

Recently, Pearson launched a number of infographics to help educate our passengers, the media and other stakeholders on the work being done at Pearson to enhance the airport experience. These infographics walk passengers through the step-by-step processes that airport partners and government stakeholders have taken to improve passenger flow throughout Pearson and provide passengers with information about what’s to come as the industry works collaboratively to improve the overall passenger travel experience.

Government support

While the situation at Pearson is unique, Canada’s position is also different compared to global airports, given that the country’s airports are private, not-for-profit entities forced to halt capital investments for two years and add significant debt to their balance sheets. While we thank the Canadian government for its collaborative work during the pandemic and its Airport Critical Infrastructure investment, the fact remains that Canada’s investments in its airports over the last two years have not matched those of other countries. American airports warned that they expected to lose $40 billion in revenue over the two pandemic years. And the U.S. government stepped up to offset those losses with emergency aid and infrastructure funding—for airports alone, over $50 billion, including $20 billion over four years purely for airport upgrades.

On this side of the border, Canadian airports have coped by adding that debt and slashing spending for all but the most critical infrastructure work. As the industry looks ahead, Toronto Pearson is focused on leveraging the COVID-19 disruption as a means to innovate, rethink and build the airport of the future. A key ingredient to doing this is by obtaining the recognition by the government of the critical role airports play for the nation’s economy and a commitment to invest appropriately in airports for Canada’s future. One option we’re exploring with the government is allowing Canadian airports to re-invest the rent they pay to the government into strategic projects. For Pearson, ten years of ground rent leveraged into infrastructure would result in $1 billion that could be used to achieve decarbonization goals, deliver a better digital experience to passengers, or critical infrastructure projects.

2. What are the current challenges and opportunities for your airport and airports in your region?  

At the height of the pandemic, when air travel was hit the hardest, companies across the industry had to let workers go. A proportion of those workers had no choice but to move on to other jobs to provide for their families. Aviation roles are highly skilled, so it’s not as simple as hiring someone new and getting them on the floor of the terminal or out on the airfield; a lot of training is required, and this takes time. Challenges related to staffing in a post-pandemic world are pervasive across many industries. Still, they are being felt acutely in the aviation industry given the highly specialized nature of many of these roles. 

Another challenge has been the steep ramp-up to travel over the summer. In recent months, we have worked with the many partners at the airport to shift Pearson from one of the world’s most shut-down major airports to one of its busiest. While many countries loosened COVID-19 restrictions last year, Canadian measures, such as vaccine requirements, remained in place until July of this year and continue even today with random testing for passengers. Last December, when Los Angeles International had returned to 55 per cent of its pre-pandemic passenger traffic, Pearson was at 25 per cent. In short, our collective pause was longer and our ramp-up to the summer peak, steeper.

3. What would you like to see the board accomplish this year?

There are many forces of change that I believe the World Governing Board (WGB) must accomplish this year. Here are just a few critical matters. 

Net-zero emissions

It was a big moment for the WGB and regions to solidify their commitment to net-zero emissions by 2050. The industry-wide commitment to net-zero emissions requires a careful strategy that reflects the uniqueness of each region as well as individual airports. While we understand that some airports will be able to achieve net-zero emissions more quickly than others, the goal is to ensure that all airports get there. The WGB will continue to develop frameworks, advocacy, best practices and experimentation that drives our industry forward.

The aviation industry will have to grapple with the financial demands placed on the ecosystem to experiment, create solutions and then adapt its facilities accordingly. Environmental Social and Governance (ESG) and the frameworks for reporting and rating criteria are complex issues that the WGB must create so that members are well equipped to manage.

The workforce of the future

This summer’s very challenged restart and the sector’s specific issues with the labour market reflect the need for industry-wide initiatives that create immediate improvements in retention and recruitment into the aviation sector.

The WGB needs a long-term plan to attract and obtain more diverse talent. A strategy is required to bring the next generation of skillsets necessary to help digitalize the passenger experience. All aspects of our airport operations and facilities management are evolving to become more technologically advanced, requiring our workforce to be re-trained. 

International Civil Aviation Organization

The restart of public air travel has taught us that the public and government do not fully understand the critical contribution of an airport on a nation’s economy. The WGB will continue to work on issues with the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and other partners to ensure that airports have more policy influence.

The WGB must continue building on the progress made with the world slot guideline process to create similar strides with modernizing ICAO documents on the rates and charges model that hasn’t changed in 30 years and is overly regulatory. The WGB will also continue to advocate for more harmonization and modernization of screening, borders, and security so the passenger experience is reliable, predictable and more consistent across member states.

While many countries have commenced air travel operations coming out of the pandemic, many still face health-based restrictions and measures. Canada, for example, continues to be restricted by the quarantine act and random testing of passengers for surveillance measures. The WGB will continue to focus on and pursue best practices for ICAO and Airports Councils International (ACI) to have a decisive role in preparing for future world crises, variants or future pandemics and the need for harmonization and science-based measures. 

It is a daunting yet exciting time, as the shutdowns and restarts have been proof of just how important the work we do every day is to the world and the economy.

4. How is your airport focused on the customer experience?

During this challenging time the aviation industry is contending with an unprecedented ramp up of air travel following two years of being in lockdown. To help reduce passenger wait times and increase passenger flow, we have launched interactive infographics on our website that provide travellers with information on their travel journey. These infographics are intended to help them understand the current processes required for domestic, transborder and international travel. 

What’s useful about these infographics is that they provide passengers with the necessary details about what each organization’s responsibilities are for the different steps along the way. They also provide tips and tricks for a smoother journey. We’re promoting these resources heavily on social media to inform passengers as they’re planning their summer travel. 

We’ve also developed a wait times dashboard on our website to show how busy each terminal will be at different times of the day, based on historical data. Passengers can use this information to plan how early they should arrive at the airport. 

The pandemic has also permitted us to accelerate our digital transformation. We have invested in several new advancements, including new check-in and boarding procedures that allow travellers to move seamlessly from the curb through to security. We also introduced contactless priority lanes that enable priority passengers to quickly scan their travel documents before proceeding to security. For returning Canadian citizens and permanent residents with NEXUS status, we introduced facial verification eGates that provide an additional option for inbound NEXUS travellers to expedite their arrival processing. We’re also completing upgrades to the baggage system, which includes AI that can sense breakdowns before they happen. This is in addition to new teams working proactively to minimize issues, and teams readily available to address breakdowns if they happen.

Even as we seek to solve the acute challenges the industry is facing with the restart of air travel, we continue to work closely with government and industry partners on solutions that can further digitize our border and our airport for a more seamless travel experience. 

The airport has strived to be the strongest link as we saw airlines and government agencies face significant challenges. Early on we adopted a philosophy that we would want our partners post pandemic to know that we are good partners to them. Our goal was and still remains to reflect an ecosystem that achieves success through collaborative teamwork.

Throughout the pandemic we often provided our partners will additional team members to help assist with airline bags and provided support to passengers when air carriers were challenged with providing customer care. 

5. Can you share some of the sustainability (social, environmental, and economic) projects or strategies taking place at your airport?

At Toronto Pearson, we take environmental sustainability seriously. Currently, we are executing against the seven strategic focus areas of our Environmental Policy, which we updated in 2021. These focus areas are carbon neutrality and emissions, climate change resiliency, energy use, waste management, water management, natural environment, and noise management. 

Toronto Pearson is committed to being a net-zero carbon and net-zero waste airport by 2050.

In 2021, we joined the World Economic Forum Clean Skies initiative, which includes showing our support for their Clean Skies for the Tomorrow Ambition statement. The statement commits the aviation industry to using 10 per cent Sustainable Aviation Fuel by 2030. In addition, we are a launch member of the Canadian Council for Sustainable Aviation Fuels, which launched on February 23rd. 

We are excited to participate in Transport Canada’s Aviation Action Plan Working Group. This working group is in the midst of developing an emissions reduction plan for presentation at the September ICAO Conference in Montreal this year. The Action Plan is part of the Government of Canada’s 2030 Emissions Reduction Plan, which has an emissions reduction goal of 40-45% compared to 2005. 

Lastly, we are participating in The Climate Economy Strategic Council, jointly led by the Toronto Region Board of Trade and MaRS, which aims to solve the challenge of adopting cleantech to support the region’s net zero journey. 

Deborah Flint is a vision-driven, Canadian-born business leader with over 25 years of experience in the international aviation industry. Ms. Flint is currently the President and CEO of the Greater Toronto Airports Authority (GTAA), operator of Toronto Pearson International Airport, Canada’s largest airport and the sixth-most connected airport in the world.

Under Ms. Flint’s dynamic leadership, Toronto Pearson has been named “Best Large Airport in North America serving more than 40 million passengers” by Airports Council International (ACI) World for five years in a row. 

Ms. Flint conceived of Toronto Pearson’s globally accredited Healthy Airport program and led the GTAA, along with some 400 companies operating at Toronto Pearson, in the development and evolution of the airport-wide program focusing on passenger and employee health. As a result of the Healthy Airport program, Toronto Pearson has been recognized as having the best hygiene measures of any airport in North America for two years in a row. 

Due to the lengthy closure of the Canadian aviation sector, Ms. Flint is facing head-on dynamics while simultaneously driving a vision of a modernized airport system that the public and government understand and can champion.

To create the “airport of the future,” Ms. Flint has inspired her teammates with a championship team mentally, encouraging Toronto Pearson employees to be results-driven, nimble, collaborative, innovative and inclusive.  

Ms. Flint is passionate about making bold business and infrastructure moves to fulfill her future vision. As the Aviation Director of Oakland International Airport, Ms. Flint delivered a decade-long quest for airport rail with a $480 million Airport Rail Project for the Bay Area Rapid Transit system (BART).

Following her tenure at Oakland International Airport, Ms. Flint was named Chief Executive Officer of Los Angeles World Airports (LAWA), one of the largest passenger and cargo airports in the world. During her time at LAWA, Ms. Flint implemented a $15 billion airport modernization plan, including the largest public works contracts in the city’s history for Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) to serve over 100 million passengers.

Ms. Flint is a member of the ACI World Governing Board, a Board Liaison for the Air Cargo Committee at ACI-North America (NA), a Board Liaison for the Safety and Technical Standing Committee at ACI-NA and an independent Director on Honeywell’s Board of Directors. 

She formerly served as a Director on the Federal Reserve Bank (San Francisco Branch), a Chair of the National Academy of Science’s Airport Cooperative Research Program and as a Director of the Airport Minority Advisory Council.

Ms. Flint has a bachelor’s degree in Business Administration from San Jose State University in California.

The ACI World WGB consists of 28 representatives nominated by the regional ACI Boards, plus the Immediate Past Chair of the Board. The number of regional representatives is calculated based on each region’s share of passenger and cargo traffic.

It meets twice a year for strategic discussions on key subjects for airport operators that reflect the concerns and interests of ACI members. They also determine ACI’s worldwide policies, report to the General Assembly, approve the budget, worldwide program of activities, policy statements and participation in the work of other world bodies, among other duties.

Sabrina Guerrieri

Sabrina Guerrieri

Manager, Communications, ACI World
Sabrina Guerrieri is ACI World's Communications Manager with over 7 years of aviation experience working in corporate and B2B communications. Skilled in writing and editing, promoting and protecting brand reputation, project management, stakeholder engagement and alignment, integrated and data-driven campaigns.
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