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Auburn University

Into Thin Air: MWAA’s Jim Bennett [Auburn almni magazine]

by Hope Katz Gibbs
Auburn magazine
Photo by Steve Barrett

As president and CEO of the Metropolitan Washington Airport Authority, Jim Bennett has a bird’s eye view of problems facing the airline industry

Jim Bennett always planned to attend Auburn University. As a teen, he made sure he had the grades. Surely he had the determination. The only question was what would he study?

At 16 he was struck by inspiration—or perhaps it was fate—when he took a summer job cutting grass at the Birmingham Airport. “It was fascinating to work around all those airplanes,” he recalls.

“It wasn’t that I wanted to be a pilot. It’s that I got addicted to the noise and excitement, and even the smell of jet fuel. I knew then that working around airports was what I wanted to do with my life.”

So at 18, Bennett enrolled in Auburn’s aviation management program, and after graduation in 1978 embarked on a career that has taken him far from home—but never far from the tarmac.

Among his positions, the Alabama-born native has been the director of aeronautics for the City of Flint, Michigan, director of the Shreveport Louisiana Airport Authority, and in the early 1990s was the assistant aviation director at Sky Harbor International Airport in Phoenix, Arizona, where he oversaw airport maintenance and operations, business affairs, finance, and planning.

In 1996, the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (MWAA) came calling. Bennett eagerly accepted the opportunity to work for an organization that managed two of the nation’s largest airports—Ronald Reagan Washington National and Dulles International.

For the last seven years, he’s worked his way up through the ranks and last May was tapped to take over as president and CEO of the organization from Jim Wilding, who, since 1987, served as the MWAA’s first president and CEO. Although Bennett refers to his new post as “a dream job,” the mild-mannered executive admits that it isn’t an easy one.

“I have a lot of help,” says the Bennett, who is responsible for the 85,000 to 90,000 passengers who daily pass through the giant metropolitan hubs. “We have good people working for us and we all have the same goal, and that is safety. It may sound trite, but protecting passengers isn’t just a job—it’s personal.”

DEALING WITH DISASTERS

Since September 11, 2001, in fact, managing airports has become downright emotional. Although Bennett isn’t the type to wear his heart on his sleeve, he does admit the last two years have taken a toll.

“Obviously, the entire airline industry has been in a slump since 9/11, and although we’re starting to show signs of life and economic rebound, it won’t take much—another terrorist attack, for instance, or another downturn in the economy-to derail our progress,” he admits.

Whenever his job taxes his strength, Bennett takes a deep breath, quietly ponders the situation, and then calmly plods ahead.

Consider, for instance, Hurricane Isabel. In September, when gobs of rain and furious winds battered the mid-Atlantic states, Bennett took the storm, and the mess it made, in stride.

“It was like any major snowstorm,” he offers. “There were one or two days of disruption. Fortunately, we didn’t have any major damage other than some flooding, and the airlines, of course, had many canceled flights. But it was momentary—not like the several days of snow last winter, which cost us about $8 or $9 million, in snow removal costs. We got through it, and re-opened for business as usual on Friday afternoon.”

It is Bennett’s low-key, confident, take it-as -it comes approach to management that convinced Norman M. Glasgow, Jr., chairman of MWAA’s 13-member board of directors, that the aviation veteran could handle the top job.

“We were confident Jim would provide the leadership and management skills necessary to continue the legacy of aviation service the MWAA has provided to the thousands of travelers who pass through our airports,” Glasgow explains. “He’s doing a great job, despite the fact that these are difficult times.”

Bennett also has an admirer in fellow Auburn alumnus Charles M. Barclay, who graduated with a degree in aviation management in 1969, and has president of the American Association of Airport Executives since 1983.

“I’m a big Jim Bennett fan,” he says. “He’s widely respected in our profession because he is one of those rare people who is not only very intelligent, but is also very wise. People just gravitate to Jim to ask his advice on things.”

Barclay believes Bennett can handle just about any problem that comes down the pike, but is worried about his industry as a whole. “More than 20 percent of the nation’s airline capacity is in bankruptcy, and another 60 percent is on the verge,” Barclay says. “And we are facing global events (including fallout from the war in Iraq) that can significantly reduce demand for air travel for at least several quarters.

“In light of these circumstances, it is essential that the federal government analyze the airline industry’s problems correctly and act wisely before its options for maintaining air service shrink to one—government ownership.”

Like Barclay, Bennett also believes his industry is in flux. He cites statistics from last July showing air travel was down nationwide by one percent compared to 2002 figures. Last summer at National Airport, those numbers were up by 11.5 percent, while at Dulles travel was up two percent. Though this increase is good news, Bennett admits
it doesn’t qualify as a dramatic turnaround.

“The potential for future terrorist events, rising security costs, a weak global economy, war, and even SARS have affected the public’s confidence in air travel,” Bennett says. “Today, 15 percent fewer people are flying than back in 2000. As recently as t999, the biggest issue in the aviation industry was congestion and delay. We spent most of our time working to figure out how we were going to accommodate everyone. Since 9/11, of course, all that has changed.”

GROUND ZERO

Yet Bennett knows from the aviation history courses he took at Auburn, as well as years of personal experience, that the aviation industry is cyclical—and he is confident it will eventually improve.

“There are cycles in which the airline industry declines, and that cycle eventually reverses and people return to the skies,” Bennett knows. “The reason is that airports are important to the local and national economy. They have a direct and dramatic impact on everything.”

And what would the region look like without its airports? Bennett says just think back to what happened at the nation’s airports after the terrorists attacked the World Trade Center and Pentagon: “No one flew for business or leisure for days [or weeks, in the case of the three-week shut down at National].”

He also points to financial reports from 2002, which show that nearly 30 million passengers used the two D.C. airports, generating nearly $4.8 billion in revenue—much of which was spent in the local economy. Additionally, employees and businesses at the airports paid $237 million in state and local taxes, and the federal government received $382 million in airport- specific taxes.

“So you can see that Washington’s airports provide a very tangible economic benefit to our region, in addition to the immeasurable value of connecting our area to the world and enabling us to travel conveniently for business and leisure,” Bennett explains. “As a result [of 9/11], hotels had little business, taxi cabs were at a standstill, packages weren’t delivered, and everyone suffered. The United States doesn’t function very well without its airports and airlines. It’s as simple as that.”

BUCKING THE TREND

Now, more than ever, Bennett is spreading the word about the critical role his airports play to the D.C. economy. He is in the process of raising money to fund MWAA’s nearly $3 billion capital development construction program, which will expand Dulles International Airport (which for the third year in a row was named the fourth busiest gateway to Europe).

Spending money on airport growth, however, bucks a national trend, with aviation experts predicting that capital spending on runways, terminals, and other work at the 15 busiest U.S. airports is likely to fall 42 percent from 2001 figures to an estimated $4.22 billion this year.

However, reduced spending is likely to result in a shortage of gates and runways—leading to more flight delays, analysts suggest. Plus, these cutbacks are coming just three years before 2006—the year the Federal Aviation Administration projects that passenger traffic will surpass the industry peak of 704.9 million in 2000.

Being proactive is a top priority for Bennett and the MWAA’s board of directors, who are trying to avoid the problem at the two D.C. airports. In 2003, a second parking garage was opened at Dulles, and preparatory work
has begun for construction of a station in the main terminal that will serve the airport’s Automated Train System.

“One day, it will replace the mobile lounges as the chief system of passenger transportation between the terminal and the concourses,” Bennett explains, referring to the vehicles that transport passengers between the terminal and the airplanes. He notes that such improvements—and the thousands of jobs created during their construction-are vital to the health of the D.C. economy.

“Not only will more than 2,300 local jobs be created by the expansion and improvement projects, but more could be coming,” he says. “This year alone, we estimate $305 million will be spent on capital construction projects, and plans are underway for the Airports Authority to issue new bonds to fund the expansion program this fall.”

The MWAA’s goal is to build the first of two new runways, a new air traffic control tower, and an underground train system by 2008-09. The estimated price tag for these improvements: $ 2.6 – $ 3 billion. To fund the expansion and renovation project, Bennett and MWAA are planning to sell revenue bonds, generate more money using the federal airport improvement program funds, and also utilize money generated from passenger facility charges.

Should travel and tourism dip again, however, the CEO of the MWAA realizes raising sufficient funds may be a challenge. Nonetheless, Bennett remains optimistic about the long-term outlook of his airports, and the industry as a whole.

“I believe that when we finally recover from this down cycle, passenger activity will increase and we’ll be back on the road to growth,” Bennett says. “I feel extremely fortunate to be able take the helm of an organization that is in excellent shape in terms of its employees and management. We have a strong foundation, which was built in large part by the efforts of my predecessor. My challenge now is to continue this high standard of service to the community.”

REALITY CHECK

As for the short-term, Bennett is well aware that added security, long lines at airports, and financially troubled airlines are problems that need to be dealt with. “We are dealing with more changes industry-wide than we have had since deregulation in 1978,” he says.

Yet, he believes there are logical, practical ways to deal with such dilemmas. In the case of airport security, for instance, airports are working hard to adhere to the guidelines set forth in legislation signed into law in 2001 that provides for enhanced airport and aircraft security—a measure that required the federalization of passenger and baggage screening services at the 142 largest U.S. airports and created the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).

Unfortunately, Bennett says, airport officials weren’t closely involved in the planning process. As a result, the check-in scanners—called CTX and with a price tag of $1 million each—are time consuming and labor intensive machines to operate.

“They were not tied in to the airport baggage sorting system and, in some cases, were placed in the ticket counter lobby,” Bennett says. “As a result, we sometimes end up with long lines.”

Bennett suggests a better way to handle those baggage checks is to integrate the scanning into the baggage processes already existing at airports.

“I think it would be more beneficial to everyone if the TSA worked more closely with airport officials and integrated the security machines into the entire baggage processing system,” he says. “It would make a lot more sense if we worked as a team.”

Another giant problem the aviation industry is facing, Bennett says, is the struggle airlines have simply to stay in business. “To keep travelers traveling, many airlines have cut their fares, and as a result, have had to eliminate services,” he says. “Many no longer provide hot meals, some don’t take seat reservations.

“This new approach works for some travelers, but it surely isn’t a model that will work for the long haul because many passengers still want some of these services. The shakeout is far from over. While I’m not sure what the model for the industry ultimately will be, I’m convinced we haven’t found it yet.”

Whatever the future holds, Bennett remains as fascinated with the aviation industry as he was during his days at Auburn. “This is still the best business in the world to be in,” he says.

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"I get by with a little help from my friends," says Hope, who gives special thanks to:

• MICHAEL GIBBS, website illustration and design: www.michaelgibbs.com
• MAX KUKOY, website development: www.maxwebworks.com
• STEVE BARRETT, portrait of Hope on Bio page: www.stevebarrettphotography.com

Contact HOPE KATZ GIBBS by phone [703-346-6975] or email.

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