Greetings… from Aruba

Although he has never held the control column of an aircraft himself, the world of aviation holds no other secrets for him. Joost Meijs is the former director of Eindhoven Airport and now runs the Queen Beatrix International Airport in Aruba.

Text Bo Peters 
Image Archief Joost Meijs

‘It was a pure coincidence that I became an airport director. People think that you first have to be a pilot, but that isn’t the case. I used to work for trade and consumer fairs at the Jaarbeurs in Utrecht. I thought it would be nice to be more socially engaged and not only involved in the commercial side. I mentioned that to head hunters and so I was asked if I wanted to become the commercial director at Eindhoven Airport. After two years, I became the CEO.

Aviation is an industry organised on an international scale. Every airport has to meet the international requirements and conditions set. As a newcomer, I first needed to internalise that. But it also includes a lot of elements that are similar to running any other business. The overlap between working with public communities and managing a commercial company is incredibly interesting.

Aruba Airport is part of the Schiphol Group and after 13 years, I received a call to see if I wasn’t interested in an adventure abroad. I had once worked in Brazil for a while for the Jaarbeurs, which I thought was fun and exciting. At that time, my wife and I decided that if the opportunity ever presented itself again, we would take it. And so the decision was easy. We moved to Aruba with our three-year-old son.

Aruba is a fantastic island. My son is now six and has no idea what long trousers are. He likes playing in the sea and building castles on the beach with his friends. On Saturdays we go mountain biking with a club and then go diving in the sea. Aruba is about the same size as Texel island in the Netherlands, but much more densely populated. You also have to go everywhere by car. There isn’t much to do here for the older children. My wife feels the urge to leave the island more and more often to go to big cities. Bonaire, Colombia and Miami are all just around the corner, but you always have to go by plane. Aruba Airport has a lot of flight destinations, so it’s a nice way to discover different parts of the world.

We don’t want to stay here forever, but for now we like it very much.

You can tell that there are Dutch influences, but Aruba is more oriented towards America. 90% of the tourists come from there. Aruba shares a historical past with the Netherlands, but it is a totally different culture. Coming to live among the Arubans as a Dutch person is not very easy. They are incredibly hospitable, friendly people, but primarily focused on family and their established ways of life. So you have to create your own little circle here. Knowing a few words of Papiamentu is appreciated, but everyone here speaks English.

Experiencing that your view of the world is definitely not the same as that of people elsewhere can be cathartic. They approach things differently here. In the Netherlands, we make long-term plans and work strategically towards them. Here, the horizon is closer. But because the cooperation with Schiphol has been in place for a long time, you notice that there is a nice mix between short-term and long-term planning. Creating a structure and never straying from it at a moment’s notice is typically Dutch. But what I find fantastic here is the willingness to get things done. The Netherlands is strong in terms of strategy, but few people are willing to roll up their sleeves and get on with it. Here, the willingness to take action is tremendous. People take the time to get things done. In the Netherlands, no one has time.

My task at Aruba Airport is different from what it was at Eindhoven Airport back then. It was still in its infancy. As a team, we achieved a tremendous amount of growth within a relatively short period of time. With 20-30 years of tourism, Aruba Airport is already a much more mature company. It has been growing at a very moderate rate of 2-3% per year, which has allowed processes to be organised differently.

The main task for me was to remodel the airport. There was a $300 million gateway programme ready to be implemented. In Eindhoven, remodelling was a side effect of growth. That meant that the business was constantly under pressure. Here it’s less dynamic, but very focused work on a new infrastructure.

It’s good to start all over again in a new place. Not only in terms of work, but also with the everyday things. The adventure keeps you fresh. It’s not only healthy for the company, but also for yourself.

The airport development here is a result of very successful evolution of Aruba as a tourist location. In Eindhoven, it was linked to Brainport and there was a corporate dimension.

In the Netherlands, aviation does not determine the success of a region or country. There is even push back against aviation because of the environment and noise pollution. Aruba would not even be able to exist economically without an airport. Yet we are trying to introduce a sustainable mindset towards aviation here, too. Flying electric will be possible for short distances between the islands within 5-6 years. We are doing that on our own initiative; there is no demand here yet.

Aviation needs to address the environmental problem quickly, otherwise they will be left by the wayside. When it comes to long-haul flights, there are significant challenges. There has to be a solution to kerosene pollution. You can’t just cry out that everyone wants to keep flying and then do nothing. Every form of transportation needs to be more sustainable.

Aviation is still an appealing field for me to work in. I work for Schiphol Airport, so it may be that I will be reassigned to another country. My wife and I are up for that. Yet I’m also not necessarily bound only to aviation. I can also imagine a future in another company that operates in the realm where society and commerce converge, such as shipping companies, ports or railway transport. Opportunities abound. Although I do think the next step will be within Europe. The Netherlands is also an option. My parents are getting older, too. The task I’m assigned is more of a deciding factor than the company or the country. I’m very flexible.

My golden tip for entrepreneurs with plans to emigrate? Don’t underestimate the cultural differences. You won’t realise it as long as you are in the Netherlands, but it truly works differently in other countries. The instincts you trust in yourself will sometimes let you down there. Culture eats strategy for breakfast. That truly is the case. The people who carry out your strategy are vital to the success of your business. Choose your country carefully.’

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