Turbulence awaits next BWI boss

Sept. 11 attacks, airline distress make CEO search harder

`Strong stomach' needed

Post is expected to be filled by Feb., Porcari says

November 25, 2001|By Paul Adams | Paul Adams,SUN STAFF

Wanted: airport executive who can woo faltering airlines; reverse two months of financial hemorrhaging; charm tightfisted lawmakers; navigate a politically charged state bureaucracy; lead a $1.8 billion capital program; and restore public confidence while making the skies safe from terrorists.

It's a job description Maryland transportation officials couldn't have conceived of before Sept. 11 fundamentally changed the way airports do business. But the hunt for a new executive director for Baltimore-Washington International Airport - now in its fifth month - has been complicated by the airport's growing pains and the terrorist attacks that left the aviation industry struggling for survival.

"It's a very tough, searing job," said Robert Linowes, a Washington attorney and member of the Maryland Aviation Commission. "There's so much that has to be done and so much going on. They have to have a thick skin and a strong stomach."

The events of Sept. 11 raised the profile of airport executives nationwide and especially in Maryland where BWI is considered a linchpin in an economy that is beginning to sputter.

But the industry's woes have made filling top aviation jobs more complicated at a time when some say BWI needs leadership most.

The airport is overseen by Deputy Transportation Secretary Beverley Swaim-Staley, who temporarily stepped in as executive director after David L. Blackshear was forced to resign in July. Though praised by commission members for her work, Swaim-Staley is not interested in having the job permanently, aides said.

Maryland Transportation Secretary John D. Porcari said he is beginning to narrow the list of an undisclosed number of candidates and expects to name a successor within two months.

Blackshear was paid $156,000 annually, and industry experts say pay for his replacement will likely range between $140,000 and $200,000, depending on the candidate. The state has hired headhunter Boyden Global Executive Search to identify candidates.

"We do want to complete this process as quickly and prudently as possible," Porcari said.

The new director will inherit an airport at a crossroads.

Before Sept. 11, BWI was the fastest-growing major airport in the country and on pace to overtake Washington Dulles International Airport as the region's busiest in terms of passengers. To keep up with the growth, state officials launched a $1.8 billion expansion program that is in its early stages.

But like all U.S. airports, BWI is booking fewer passengers since Sept. 11 and fighting to maintain air service as major airlines cut costs by slashing flights.

The airport estimated that it lost about $4.7 million in revenue during the two days airports nationwide were shut down because of the terrorist attacks. Airport officials estimate that revenue has since rebounded to near year-ago levels, but expenses have increased as security has been tightened.

And tough times are ahead. The airport was broadsided by the decision of financially troubled US Airways, the airport's No. 2 carrier after Southwest Airlines, to eliminate its entire Baltimore-based MetroJet fleet beginning next month. That and other cuts will reduce US Airways' operations at BWI by about 60 percent, depriving the airport of an important source of passenger revenue.

The airport also lost Irish carrier Aer Lingus, and industry experts say remaining international service is in peril as the aviation crisis spreads worldwide.

Airport officials got some good news last month when discount carrier AirTran Airways said it would launch new service between BWI and Atlanta, Boston and several cities in Florida beginning next month. But AirTran's 14 daily flights won't make up for the loss of MetroJet's 49 daily flights.

Attracting new air service could become more complicated if cash-strapped airlines begin consolidating, as many aviation analysts anticipate. Arlington, Va.-based US Airways is among those considered vulnerable to bankruptcy or takeover.

"It's a very difficult time for the industry," said Spencer Dickerson, executive vice president of the American Association of Airport Executives, an industry trade group. The way airports do business has changed in the past two months, casting airport directors in the role of rebuilding public confidence in airport security while dealing with the financial fallout affecting airlines, he said.

On Monday, President Bush signed a bill that will place airport security in the hands of the federal government. At the same time, federal supervisors from the Department of Transportation will begin surveying the nation's airports in search of ways to further improve security. The moves have placed a premium on security expertise within the airport administration.

"Everyone is looking as it relates to this whole issue of anti-terror and security issues and that's creating a demand for very senior-level people - chief executive officers or one step below - in security matters," said Tim McNamara, managing director for Boyden.

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