May 8, 2013

Sacramento County airports director hits the ground running

Nineteen months after its gala opening, the Sacramento airport's new $1 billion terminal is a modern, stylish showpiece that often feels empty. It's up to John Wheat, a 30-year veteran of airports, to make it bustle.

New county airports director John Wheat strolled the main ticketing hall at Sacramento International Airport last week, talking up the facility's charms. As he spoke, a few customers trickled by, their rumbling luggage wheels one of the few sounds echoing in the vaulted chamber.

Nineteen months after its gala opening, the Sacramento airport's new $1 billion terminal is a modern, stylish showpiece that often feels empty. It's up to Wheat, a 30-year veteran of airports, to make it bustle.

His marching orders: Cut costs, boost revenue, improve relationships with airlines – and cross his fingers that the slowly rebounding Sacramento economy brings more customers to his gates.

Passenger counts have dropped 17 percent since 2007, and the airport now carries more than $1 billion in debt.

Wheat said he intends to move quickly. Three weeks into the job, he is educating himself – drinking from a fire hose, he says – and intends to formulate a step-by-step business plan in 90 days.

"We'll pick things off one at a time," he said.

Among the questions: What can the airport do to market itself better? Can it compete with Bay Area airports, for instance, for wine country tourists?

Wheat said he plans to ask Sacramento area companies where they want to do business and when they plan to ratchet up travel plans to those cities, so that he can go to the airlines and offer them the data they need to commit to new flights.

Wheat said there may be hidden demand right now, for instance, for a direct flight to Austin, Texas. "If you introduce a nonstop, there is a (economic) stimulation factor."

During an interview last week in his still largely unadorned office in the new terminal building, overlooking the people mover shuttle, Wheat offered a frequent gap-toothed smile and a hint of wry humor.

The airport budget? "I haven't read that," he said.

Jokes aside, his bosses at Sacramento County say Wheat, who was hired from a list of 18 finalists, brings a focused business approach to the job, which pays $189,716 plus benefits. Wheat replaces Hardy Acree, who retired in December.

Wheat formerly worked at Salt Lake City International, Tampa International and Northwest Florida Beaches International, where officials described him as smart at analyzing operations.

"His background is pretty business-heavy," Sacramento County Supervisor Phil Serna said. "He brings some appropriate skill sets for the airport."

One of his tasks will be to improve the frayed relationship between the airport and its airlines.

Sacramento International has become one of the more expensive airports in the country for carriers to do business. It now charges airlines an estimated $18.93 fee per passenger. In the pre-Big Build days six years ago, it charged airlines only $5.48 per passenger.

Southwest, United and other airlines protested the fee changes, complaining that Sacramento County was expanding its facility on their backs.

Wheat spoke last week about re-engaging the airlines as partners in the airport's growth efforts, and in lowering those fees. He said he plans to talk to the airlines about a "profit-sharing" arrangement, where the airport shares revenue in good years, and the airlines chip in more in bad years.

"In the good times, we all make money," Wheat said. "If something happens and we go into a tailspin, they help me make payments so there isn't a default situation."

Officials at Southwest Airlines, which operates half of Sacramento's flights, praised Wheat.

"We look forward to working with John to continue building the partnership between Sacramento County and Southwest Airlines," Southwest said in an emailed statement to The Bee. "He has a proven track record of lowering airline costs and creating a favorable environment for growth. We're excited about the future."

Wheat said it's unlikely that the airport will see new airlines come to Sacramento, or many new flights from existing airlines, for a while.

Airport officials expect flier numbers to hold steady this year, then begin to creep up next year as the region's business climate improves, and as more workers feel flush enough to take flying vacations.

Wheat said his team will continue to explore a branding option airport officials began a few years ago: Marketing Sacramento as the best airport to use for tourists who want to visit Northern California wineries. Wheat pointed out that it's easier to get to Amador County through Sacramento than from the Bay Area, and Napa and Sonoma are just a short drive away.

Barbara Hayes, president of the Sacramento Area Commerce and Trade Organization, a strong proponent of the new terminal, has not met Wheat but said last week she agreed with his emphasis on airport and business community collaboration to boost service.

"Increased connectivity to the world will increase the success of our corporate recruitment efforts for the region," Hayes said.

As Sacramento County Airport System director, Wheat also oversees Mather Airport, Executive Airport and Franklin Field. In addition to bringing new business to Sacramento International, Wheat said he will focus on implementing a new master plan for Mather Airport, which will continue to offer cargo flights but is expected to grow as a land-based business center.

Overall, the airport department is in stable financial position, Wheat said. The quiet terminal ticketing hall, he says, is a bit of an illusion.

"Travelers want to get through ticketing and security as quickly as possible," Wheat said, "so your big activity is usually out at the concourses."

Wheat, 62, said he expects Sacramento to be his final career destination. He and his wife moved into a downtown loft, near the Capitol, and are delighted to find they can walk to dozens of restaurants.

"We're loving it do death," he said.

Wheat is especially pleased that the airport boasts some of same business names he finds in his neighborhood, such as Burgers & Brew and Esquire Grill.

That is the way it should be, he said. "A wonderful thing that airports can do is bring a flavor of the community into the airport."

Call The Bee's Tony Bizjak, (916) 321-1059. Follow him on Twitter @tonybizjak.

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