Wendy Francette-Williams’ mission: transform Caribbean aviation

Lean Into Aviation (3)

A tiny firebrand standing just over five feet tall, Wendy Francette-Williams has enough drive and determination to fill a giant’s frame, as she pursues her life’s mission to transform commercial aviation in the Caribbean.

Francette-Williams, CEO of the Grenada Airports Authority (GAA), has a vision to match – as well as a profound desire to convey all she has learned during a remarkable career to future Caribbean airport and aviation professionals.

She is already active as a part-time professor at the University of the West Indies’ St. Augustine campus in Trinidad, teaching an ‘Airports Operations and Management’ course. The university has also tasked Francette-Williams as a consultant to develop a dual-internship program in partnership with New York’s Vaughn College of Aeronautic Engineering, Aviation, and Technology. This may lead to other internship programs being established throughout the Caribbean.

“I have dedicated my life to aviation in the Caribbean,” Francette-Williams told RGN. During the interview, Francette-Williams, mother to three grown daughters and now a grandmother, revealed her deep Christian faith fuels her determination during difficult times to win for Grenada and the Caribbean the important aviation roles she sees for them.

At the recent ‘Caribbean Aviation Meetup’ conference on Dominica, Francette-Williams held dozens of seasoned aviation, airport and tourism professionals spellbound for nearly two hours as she laid out her vision for aviation in the Caribbean.

Having transformed the fortunes of Maurice Bishop International Airport (MBIA), Grenada’s international airport, since she became CEO in 2013, Francette-Williams reckons she now has 18 months – until a new Grenadian general election in late 2017 – to implement her vision to grow MBIA and Grenada’s aviation economy.

A vision is nothing without a demonstrated track record to underpin it. Here Francette-Williams holds a hand of aces.

Encouraged by a mentor in Trinidad’s Public Transport Service Corporation in 1983 to apply for associate membership in the UK’s Chartered Institute of Transport (CIT), Francette-Williams became the first Caribbean woman to win a CIT place through examination.

Upon moving jobs in 1983 to the Airport Authority of Trinidad and Tobago (AATT), Francette-Williams persuaded her new employer to fund her part-time study at the CIT for a degree in international transport management. Within two years she graduated, the only woman to do so.

Rising through AATT’s ranks to become supervisor of information services – a role in which she held responsibility for flight operations, gate planning, customer service and other crucial functions at AATT’s two airports – Francette-Williams obtained in 2008 an MSc in aviation management from the UWI.

In 2010 AATT appointed her its aviation training officer, a role Francette-Williams kept until the GAA hired her as CEO. “I wrote almost every [AATT] operations policy, so when I came to Grenada it was easy for me to adapt to the role of CEO,” said Francette-Williams. However, the GAA “was dead. When I arrived, I had to take an airport and do something with it.”

In 2008, the GAA had established the unfortunate Caribbean precedent of giving American Airlines revenue guarantees covering given numbers of seats, allowing American to offset all its business risk on routes from the US to Grenada. Subsequently many other Caribbean airport authorities have adopted similar strategies with American and other airlines, escalating a poorly conceived gamble into a full-scale financial crisis for much of the region’s airport industry.

In her new job at the GAA Francette-Williams found American “very demanding”, but she determined her first priority was to cease throwing money at the giant US airline. “I stopped doing guaranteed seats,” said Francette-Williams. “We’re still paying for the backlog, but the thing they understand now is that we can’t afford the guaranteed-seat arrangement. We are using flexible [airport] rates [instead], but this is not impacting on our revenues and financial status.”

Francette-Williams instituted a hybrid business model for the GAA by which the state-owned corporation began operating like a private-sector company, recouping its costs and making profits for reinvestment in development. “I looked at the accounts and changed the way [the GAA] did their reporting – and paying creditors. I started to pay everyone every month, putting everything on a debt schedule,” Francette-Williams recalled.

She tore up the GAA’s existing contracts with airport tenants. “They had all sorts of exclusivity in their contracts and they became too comfortable in not paying. The ground-handling company was collecting [revenues] and paying me what they wanted.”

Francette-Williams promptly ended all contract exclusivity, enforcing timely payments from airport tenants. “I will collect my landing fees now, not when you want to pay me,” she told them. “I turned around my US [dollar] account.”

Additionally, “the labor contracts weren’t good – there were too many permanent workers. I advised [contractors] they needed to look at their staff schedules. They’re doing much better now.”

These actions turned the GAA around. Compared with the 2011-2013 period, in its 2014-15 financial year the GAA’s operating profit jumped 254.7 percent, its net surplus soared 419.7 percent, and passenger numbers rose 19.1 percent on a 2.3 percent increase in aircraft movements.

Now Francette-Williams intends to grow MBIA’s capacity and traffic, add new retail concessions at MBIA and construct (under a build-operate-transfer plan in which the GAA will remain an investor) a 65-bedroom Hampton Inn for overnighting aircrews and domestic tourists. “It will have a lovely view of the Atlantic,” she said.

But the jewel in Francette-Williams’ planned development crown derives from her passion as an educator. Along with MBIA and Lauriston Airport on the nearby island of Carriacou (where Francette-Williams hopes a new hotel will be built, justifying a potential decision to lengthen the runway to 5,000 feet), the GAA also manages Pearls Airport.

Lauriston Airport, Carriacou, Grenada. Image: Google Earth

Lauriston Airport, Carriacou, Grenada. Image: Google Earth

Today Pearls Airport’s 5,151-foot runway is used only for car racing. However, Francette-Williams plans to locate a “one-stop shopping” aviation academy there. This academy would offer training in airport and airline management, along with training for fixed-wing aircraft and helicopter pilots, dispatchers, maintenance mechanics, meteorologists and aircraft designers.

Having already signed Vaughn College and Ireland’s Dublin College of Technology as partners, Francette-Williams seeks aerospace-industry sponsors to help set up the resources the academy will require. Given her career-long record of achievement, no-one should doubt she will succeed.

Pearls Airport, Granville, Grenada. Image: Google Earth

Pearls Airport, Granville, Grenada. Image: Google Earth