Editorial: New airport director will be a crucial hire

Published: Sunday, Jan. 20, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 6E
Last Modified: Sunday, Jan. 20, 2013 - 3:05 pm

Whomever Sacramento County selects as its new airport director faces big challenges. The county's airport system, its biggest enterprise fund, generated $179 million last fiscal year but is struggling to pay down a heavy debt load. Despite the opening of spiffy new Terminal B 14 months ago, the numbers of flights and passengers at Sacramento International are down substantially from the airport's 2007 peak.

That year, more than 10.7 million passengers arrived and departed, compared with just 8.9 million in 2012, a drop of more than 20 percent.

Flights are down almost 23 percent – from an average of 173 departures per day in 2007 to 138 per day last year.

Even before the new $1 billion terminal was built, airline industry officials complained that it was too big and grandiose. To help pay for it, rents, gate fees and other costs to the airlines have more than doubled. Higher airport costs alone don't account for the dramatic drop in flights. The worldwide recession pummeled the airline industry more than others. Business and leisure travel are down across the globe. But gate fees in Sacramento are double what they were before the new terminal opened. Building rents gave climbed almost 25 percent. That makes Sacramento International less competitive.

For passengers the new terminal is not as user-friendly as it should be. Signage is poor, parking very expensive and public transit options far too limited, as we noted in an editorial Monday. How hard can it be to get Regional Transit to alternate with Yolobus to run half-hourly transit service from the airport to downtown?

Sacramento International is not the only struggling airport in the county's system. Mather Airport, Sacramento's primary cargo facility, has never lived up to its potential. Given its proximity to the Silicon Valley, easy access to Highway 50 and a geographical location well suited to serve the booming economies of the Pacific Rim, Mather should be thriving but it suffered a $3.1 million operating loss in the fiscal year that ended last June 30.

Sacramento Executive Airport, the general aviation facility in south Sacramento that handles charters and private aircraft, is a money loser, too. In the mid-1990s elected officials rejected a recommendation to close Executive Airport and redevelop the area. Since then its economic performance has improved, but it still lost $1.2 million last fiscal year.

Finally, county officials report that losses at Franklin Field, which is not much more than a runway that serves the needs of small aircraft owners, run into the tens of thousands of dollars annually.

The most important task for the new airport director will be to raise more revenue and cut costs. At Sacramento International, that will require persuading struggling airlines – ignored when they pleaded to reduce the size and cost of Terminal B – to bring in more flights, a tough sale. The county has included airline representatives on the search team for a new director, a good thing. The airlines want a candidate who can increase operational efficiencies and attract more airport-related, revenue-generating development including a hotel, gas station and, perhaps, a business park, so that their costs can be reduced.

But airlines are only one constituency. County supervisors and the public need to be kept in the hiring loop, too. Former airport director Hardy Acree operated the airport as a private fiefdom. It's clear that supervisors and County Executive Brad Hudson don't want a repeat of that management style.

While Hudson is ultimately responsible for hiring, he should not be allowed to make this important selection in a vacuum. The top three finalists should be vetted by the Board of Supervisors at a public meeting. The more open the process, the more support the new director will have when he or she is named, probably sometime next month.

In this difficult job, the backing of a broad set of stakeholders – the airlines, elected officials, airport employees and the public – is a key to success.

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