VA: New Newport News Airport Director Wants to ‘Put Airport Back on the Map’

Feb. 23–The new executive director of Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport told the airport’s board on Thursday that airlines around the country are now in an "expansion mode" and that the airport is in a good position to "put itself back on the map."

Michael Giardino, the former Rochester, N.Y., airport executive who took the helm in Newport News in November, said the facility is getting back on its feet financially.

The airport’s operating budget is still "a challenge," he said. Case in point: The airport lost $175,000 in January — the result of a traditionally slow month for passengers combined with flight cancellations from snow — as well as continuing high attorney fees to deal with the airport’s ongoing legal challenges.

But in capital projects, Giardino said, $4.65 million has just arrived or will soon be coming. That cash will be used to pay bills on everything from revamped plane taxiways to a brand-new terminal security checkpoint to wetlands mitigation.

In late March, he said, the Newport News airport will get $2 million in state entitlement grant funds.

That’s the result of Virginia Department of Aviation both restoring the airport’s annual state allotment and freeing up cash that it had frozen last year. The state put the grants to Newport News on hold when it learned that the airport had used some of that grant money — typically earmarked for capital projects — to cover a debt for start-up airline People Express three years ago.

The airport is also expected to soon get $1.1 million from the Federal Aviation Administration to reimburse part of what the airport has already paid on a new security checkpoint at the terminal.

In addition, TowneBank and the Jones, Blechman, Woltz and Kelly law firm recently paid the Newport News airport $1.65 million in cash to settle a months-long legal dispute over the loan guarantee to People Express Airlines. That money will go to capital projects, too.

"We are now secure in our capital funding, and we can move forward," Giardino said. "Our capital accounts are full or will be full at the end of March. We have a plan for the future." The Department of Aviation, he said, is on board with the airport’s capital projects out to 2021.

Giving the Peninsula Airport Commission a rundown of his first 100 days on the job, Giardino also talked about several other highlights of his tenure.

* "Getting to know the people and the place."

Giardino said he’s getting to know the airport, its staff and operations.

Sandy Wanner, the former James City County administrator who led the airport on an interim basis for much of 2017, called on his Peninsula contacts and took Giardino to some 30 meetings to meet the area’s movers and shakers. (The commission approved paying Wanner a certain number of hours a week to spearhead those meetings.)

"Sandy was a great asset to reach out to the community, and we did that," Giardino said. "We made so many visits between November and the holiday that it was a blur. But in that blur, I took away a lot." Local leaders on the Peninsula, he said, "are passionate about this place, and everyone has offered their support."

"We had frank and honest conversations," Giardino added. "I have all of their mobile numbers, and I don’t hesitate to call them."

* Restoring the public trust

Early last year, then-Virginia Secretary of Transportation Aubrey Layne froze much of the Newport News airport’s annual state entitlement grants as issues were sorted out with the 2014 loan guarantee to People Express. But Giardino said that by the time he arrived in November, the airport commission and staff had made strides to fix the relationship with the state.

As a result, Giardino said, Layne called him two days after he got to Newport News to say he was there to help. "There was a reconciliation that took place," Giardino told the board. "I don’t think Secretary Layne would have made that phone call if it hadn’t been. There was a lot that needed to be fixed. By the time I arrived, it had been fixed."

In January, Layne told the board that he was freeing up the annual state funds that were still frozen.

Giardino also referenced the letter the commission sent to the FAA on Feb. 1, responding to the agency’s concerns about the 2015 loan guarantee. He said he was looking forward to a positive response. "We think we are in good shape with that," Giardino said.

The new director also said he’s talked to airport staff about loyalty and integrity.

"I’m loyal, and I expect loyalty, and I expect integrity throughout," Giardino said. "I also expect firm, fair and consistent policies, and we’ve adjusted a few of those to make sure we are firm, fair and consistent." He said there’s still "a ways to go" on adjusting some of those policies.

* Getting the word out about the airport

"We need to put ourselves back on the map," he told the board. "I say this five or six times a day … We aren’t the first choice when putting an airport code or a city into the search box. It’s not the thing they are typing in, and we need to change that."

The airport’s marketing budget is tight, he said. But "we can do it in a very efficient way," such as with social media. "And just running a great airport will go a long way," he said.

*Getting more air service

"I told everyone that we are focusing on the airlines that are in the building, because they are strong," Giardino said, referring to legacy carriers American Airlines and Delta Air Lines that fly out of Newport News.

Still, getting more air service here is a priority, too. Losing Air Tran Airways in 2012, he said, was the result of Southwest Airlines buying Air Tran to gain access to its routes to the Caribbean and closing Air Tran routes to lots of destinations.

"They pulled out of 22 airports, and ours just happened to be one of the hardest hit," Giardino said. "It’s no one here’s fault that it happened. The good news is that we have the capacity for more and we have a demand for more — and we’ll get it. Airlines that were in a contraction mode from 2008 until about 2014 are now in an expansion mode. That’s the good news. So we are poised and ready."

Elite Airways, he said, is launching service on April 6, for service to Myrtle Beach, S.C., on Mondays and Fridays. But the airport is hoping to get more service routes from Elite, too.

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Peter Dujardin can be reached by phone at 757-247-4749 or by email at pdujardin@dailypress.com

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