After eight years of running airports around the world, B.C.-born Craig Richmond returns as president and CEO of YVR, with a vision for teaming up with tourism operators to grow the region’s appeal as an international destination
You were born in Vancouver and raised in Kamloops, and served in the Canadian Armed Forces as a fighter pilot. Did you go straight from high school to the Armed Forces?
I did. Back then, at the height of the Cold War, you didn’t have to go to university. So I was flying jets when I was 19. And by the time I was 20 I was on high performance, or what’s called fighters. And then at 21 I was posted overseas, spent five-and-a-half years in Germany and flew the old 104 and then the F-18 when it came in. And then I flew in Cold Lake from 1988 to ’90 and spent a lot of time in Comox on alert in ’88, ’89 and ’90.
What led you to choose the Armed Forces over commercial aviation?
If you want to fly, you want to fly the fastest that there is. So there was never any doubt from the age of 13 that I was going to try and get into the Air Force and fly fighters.
Then when you left the Forces, what led you to pursue an MBA at the University of Manitoba?
I got most of my first degree in night school through the military, and I always wanted to go back to school, so I decided to make the big leap and went back to finish the degree in Manitoba. And I was always interested in business so I thought, well, a good way to make the leap would be to get an MBA, so in ’94 I graduated with the MBA and moved back here to Vancouver. I did some consulting work and then somebody said, ‘You should go to the airport and see what they have.’ I happened to almost stumble into this consulting job, which led to an airside manager’s job and then the VP of operations. And here I sit today.
Then how did you end up leaving YVR to run airports around the world?
We have an associate company that is now called Vantage—at the time it was called Vancouver Airport Services—and they run airports all over the world. The director of business development at the time asked what I would think of going to the Bahamas as a CEO. I said that looks like a real opportunity. So I spent four-and-a-half years in the Bahamas, followed by two-and-a-half in the U.K., and just this past five months in Cyprus before this job was offered.
Did you bring back any lessons from airports around the world?
Absolutely. We don’t want to ever believe that we have all the answers. Our airports in Liverpool, Jamaica, Nassau and Cyprus—they’re all doing things that we can learn from. So yeah, I’ve got a couple of ideas that I want to try. I won’t say what they are because I don’t want our competitors to get a jump.
What’s your vision for the next chapter of YVR’s history?
The first part of that vision would be, don’t mess with what works; realize what’s good and keep building on it. And that includes everything, from the organization to customer service to the capital budget. The second thing would be to team up a little bit more with the tourism folks—and that’s everybody: Destination BC, the federal and provincial governments, Tourism Vancouver, the hotel association—and put together a B.C. brand, a Vancouver brand, instead of just the airport brand. [Gestures out his window toward the mountains beyond the runways.] Look at this: we’re sitting here on a day where, if I had someone here from an airline, I could convince them to come here, that people want to come here. So we just need to remember that we’re in the airport business, but the airport is only the way station. It’s the start of the vacation or of the business opportunity. So I really want to team up with tourism folks. The third thing is to market the place and grow the numbers: grow the number of airlines, grow the flights. First, because every extra jet is jobs. Think of the jobs that are produced in looking after that aircraft, in accommodating the crew and the people that arrive here. And the second reason why growing is important is that international traffic is a zero-sum game: if you’re not getting it, you’re losing it. People will fly to Calgary or Chicago or Seattle if you’re not giving them the product that they want.
What part does retail development play in the future of YVR?
That’s all part of the strategy, where you try to maximize what we call the non-aeronautical part, which is parking and retail and food and beverage and cargo facilities and things like the retail outlet mall that we’re doing, because the more money that you make in that, the more you can keep your aeronautical fees down and attract more airlines. Remember, this isn’t profit; this is money that goes back into the airport. And if we can maximize the non- aeronautical, we can minimize the aeronautical charges to the airlines. That’s the whole plan. So yes, continuing to do that wherever we can and trying to find the right partners for the right place.
What’s the prospect of seeing the $20 airport fee reduced or scrapped?
That’s not going to happen. It’s part of the financial underpinning of the company. It’s how we can plan for the future and build, for example, baggage-transfer systems, and we can bring in more traffic from Asia. So no, it’s not going away.