Atif Saeed, Philadelphia’s new chief of aviation, has perhaps some of the city’s loftiest New Year’s resolutions.
In 2023, he wants travelers to be even more proud of Philadelphia International Airport, he said, and hopes more people will rate their time there as one of the best travel experiences they’ve ever had.
Ultimately, he said, his eyes are on 2026, a year in which several events including the country’s 250th anniversary and the Men’s World Championship will highlight Philadelphia.
“The peak will be in 2026 when we will have our airport and community in the spotlight,” he said. “We want to make sure we’re fully prepared and provide the experience that matches what we want our community to represent internationally.”
This three-year goal is particularly ambitious as the travel industry continues to recover from the peak of the coronavirus pandemic and PHL is working to improve its ranking after coming last in a recent passenger satisfaction survey at major North American airports, from 10 million to 32 .9 million passengers per year.
In the same poll, Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport — which Saeed managed in his last role as chief financial officer for Minnesota’s Metropolitan Airport Commission — ranked first among mega-airports with 33 million or more passengers a year.
In an interview this week, The Inquirer asked the new chief executive officer of the Philadelphia Division of Aviation how he plans to improve the passenger experience at PHL and what his goals are for the airport.
The interview has been condensed for brevity and clarity.
We are currently about 80% recovered compared to 2019. There are certainly airports across the country that have fully recovered, and most of these are sunny destinations.
Things are lagging behind on two fronts. First, it’s business travel, which is slow to recover, and that’s a universal theme. The more business dependent you are as a community, the slower the recovery. So that’s a point where we’re a little behind. And the other is international connectivity. This also applies to all airports, which primarily serve international communities – and as we are a gateway to Europe, this is slow to come back.
Overall, we expect to be back to normal pre-pandemic levels by late 2024, early 2025. But these are only projections. They are constantly updated.
There are approximately $1.3 billion in investment programs that have been approved and are queued up over the next few years to improve the overall terminal experience.
There are several things that are done operationally. There is a program that started in 2019 called the Volunteer Assistance Program. Among them are many volunteers who come to the airport daily and provide a service that improves the overall customer experience.
Master planning is also being carried out on the IT side, which is very customer-oriented in terms of guest experience.
Perhaps the most powerful is essentially a guest experience council made up of representatives from everyone working at the airport. And what they’re trying to cultivate is a consistent customer experience for all travelers, regardless of which agencies you interact with at the airport.
Airports across the country have upgraded their facilities. And there were plans for us to do the same — partly with the $1.3 billion we talked about, but also with an overall plan that had to be put on hold because of the pandemic.
This master plan will be completed in the summer of 2023 and will tackle every single thing you list and beyond. It is literally meant for us to improve our terminals and reach a level of airport complexity that seems a bit ahead of us. The airports with brand new terminals and facilities would clearly rank higher than us. So we hope to catch up in this area through this masterplanning effort.
We make sure everything we do converges to provide a better experience for our passengers every day. We have a lot to look forward to at major events. We want to reach a point where every single person traveling through the airport feels it has been one of the best airport experiences they have ever had.
They have a very excited resident, citizen in their community. I love to eat and you can find just about anything you could want in terms of fine dining here. I enjoy cycling in my spare time and there are tremendous opportunities to have this outdoor activity. I also like to go for a walk. I love urban life and the accessibility of everything.
It just feels like home. I’m really, really excited to be a part of the community and to do community work and service.