With air passenger and cargo traffic expected to increase by around 5% annually over the next two decades, a steady supply of highly skilled employees with an in-depth understanding of the aviation industry is essential. From its two residential campuses in the US and its international education network, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University takes in the latest market developments to equip students with the knowledge and skills they require, as explained by faculty and administration.

Could you tell us a little about the university – its history, reputation, where its main sites are and the major courses it offers?
Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (ERAU) celebrates its 90th anniversary this year. Exactly 22 years to the day after the Wright Brothers successfully flew their aircraft, T Higby Embry and John Paul Riddle decided to launch a business to teach others to fly. Over its history, Embry-Riddle has evolved to become a globally recognised and highly respected university offering programmes across disciplines in engineering, business, arts, science, security and intelligence, in addition to those within its roots in aviation.

Embry-Riddle is the world’s only fully accredited university with a primary focus on all aspects of the aviation and aerospace industries but, over time, technological advancements and industrial demands have propelled the university into broader fields, too. Two residential campuses and a worldwide network of education centres, as well as online platforms, provide degrees at associate, bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral levels.

Traditional residential campuses are located in Daytona Beach, Florida, (5,200 enrolled students) and in Prescott, Arizona, (2,000 enrolled students). The worldwide campus network enrols more than 20,000 students, including many US military and civilian personnel stationed around the globe. Embry-Riddle boasts more than 120,000 alumni globally, the majority of whom work within the aviation and aerospace industries.

What are some of the core challenges facing the aviation industry at the moment?

Not too long ago, airports were considered simply as infrastructure providers for airlines, not really as independent business entities. Traditionally, as infrastructure providers, they were owned and operated by governments, relying mostly on revenue from airlines and public funding; this has changed over the past three decades. Deregulation continues to intensify the competition between airlines but has also saddled airports with constant competitive pressures from each other. Airports face fiscal uncertainty, largely as result of the colossal need to fund capacity expansion, improvements and facility maintenance. To survive and prosper, airports must be dynamic, proactive, innovative and forward-thinking.

How do these challenges and changing trends in the industry inform the syllabus you offer?

Airports are becoming more entrepreneurial in attracting and retaining passengers and airlines, and in exploring new areas for revenue sources. Non-aeronautical revenue is now a vital component of airports’ income. In the US in 2014, it accounted for an average 48% of operating revenues for large hub airports, 50% for medium hub airports, 58% for small hub airports and 49% for non-hub airports. Therefore, our students need to be educated in all aspects of the aeronautical activities at airports, and also must understand the financial and commercial aspects of airports’ businesses.

Airline consolidation and evolving business models, such as the emergence of low-cost carriers, force airports to take over some of what, traditionally, were airline responsibilities. Airports must face the challenges of integrating new service-delivery demands. Our courses examine the integral relationship between airport and airline. Implementation of safety management systems and risk-based assessments result in changes to an airport’s traditionally standard operations. Such changes require the integration of different perspectives regarding impact on organisational structure and corporate culture.

Emerging technology, such as NextGen and RFID, generates the need for people with new technical skills, while mobile communication technology and social media are revolutionising the way airport services are delivered, and the burgeoning relationship with connected, informed travellers generates opportunities for creative-minded personnel and talents in customer relationship management.

What problems and risks do airports face if staff haven’t had a high level of training?

If airport personnel have not attained an appropriately high level of training, airports may lose opportunities to optimise cost-efficiency within their operations and increase not only the risk of accidents on the ground but also the potential for disasters in the sky. A horrifying example is what happened in 2005 on Alaska Airlines Flight 536, when a mistake by replacement workers on the ground led to a 1ft hole opening up in the fuselage at 26,000ft, causing an explosive decompression of the cabin. Passenger security concerns also need to be considered.

Tell us a little about your airport management programme, your principal subjects and why you focus on these issues?

The College of Business at Embry-Riddle offers airport management courses at undergraduate and graduate level. These courses address the following key areas:

  • the role and requirements of the airport manager
  • changes in technology affecting airport development
  • the various airport types and their roles in the airport system
  • functions of airport facilities on the airfield, in the terminal and landside
  • the importance of airport security and safety issues
  • current ground-access issues at major airports
  • the masterplanning process and its importance to airport management
  • critical issues involving airline scheduling, fleet management and the impact on airport gate use.

Issues around development, regulation, social impact and environment are also important subjects covered through:

  • current federal advisories and regulations regarding airport development and operation
  • major environmental impact issues faced by airports, particularly noise issues, as well as the applicable regulatory requirements
  • land-use planning and control options available to airport managers to deal with noise
  • the economic, social and political effects of airport development on the local area.

Finally, the courses look into performance analysis and financial considerations such as revenue, funding and workforce via:

  • qualitative and quantitative methods of evaluating airfield and terminal operations
  • various financial and organisational strategies employed by airport management
  • sources of funding for airports and airport funding policies in the US
  • statistical methods to generate airport-related demand forecasts
  • analytical methods to estimate airport capacity and delay measures
  • financial and organisational strategies employed by airport management
  • service agreements between airlines and airports, how these contracts are negotiated, and the factors affecting the financial and marketing aspects of service agreements
  • issues of labour relations from airline and airport perspectives
  • public/media relations from airline and airport perspectives, and how this issue affects air service operations and airport growth
  • strategies used by airline and airport management to effectively operate in a competitive environment.

How much demand is there within the aviation industry for potential staff to be trained to degree level? Has this changed over recent years?

The most recent forecast by Boeing indicates that worldwide air passenger traffic is expected to grow 5.0% annually and air cargo traffic 4.7% annually over the next 20 years. At these growth projections, airlines will need 21,270 additional aircraft – above the replacement needs of their current fleets – to meet traffic growth. To provide necessary services, this growth will naturally require additional capacity and related personnel. Yet, a large number of experienced workers are preparing to retire in the near future, which increases the need to turn out a well-trained and skilled airport workforce to meet the needs of this demanding and evolving industry.

During the most recent recessionary period, 2008-13, many airports froze staff hiring. With the improved economic climate, there is now a significant increase in the demand for staff, with a similar increase reflected by those seeking training and/or degrees. However, airport hiring tends to be segmented by region. Consequently, an increase in the number of airports in one region will only result in increased hiring principally of residents within that region.

Will the fact that much of the growth is outside of North America and Europe affect what you teach?

ERAU is continually updating course material to reflect changes in technology, safety standards and aircraft specifications. Our courses also are transitioning away from US-centric standards and towards ICAO standards.