One on One: Mike Salamone

The Airport Cooperative Research Program (ACRP) was initially authorized in December 2003 as part of the Vision 100-Century of Aviation Reauthorization Act. In October 2005, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) executed a contract with the National Academies, acting through its Transportation Research Board (TRB), to serve as manager of ACRP. Michael R. Salamone has served as manager of ACRP since 2006, having served in airport management roles in Burlington and Des Moines, IA. Recently, AIRPORT BUSINESS interviewed Salamone for an update on the program. Following are edited excerpts ...

AIRPORT BUSINESS: Since your funding is subject to Congressional direction, how has the impasse on the Hill in recent years affected ACRP?

Salamone: The program was authorized for $10 million for 2006 through 2008. The $10 million was extended by continuing resolution into 2009. The Administration is recommending a jump to $15 million per year, which both Houses support. Even though authorization is still at $10 million, the continuing resolution bumped it to $15 million in 2009 and 2010. As a result, 40 new research topics were approved.

AB: Has funding been adequate?

Salamone: As a practical matter, when we go out to the industry and ask for problem statements or research ideas, invariably we get more than we can address. Not all of the ideas are a priority for the industry. The fact that we get more ideas than we have funds means that we can prioritize them and allocate the funds we do get to the highest priority projects. That’s probably appropriate.

The other thing is, the increase of funding to $15 million is going to pose a logistical problem, so we’re staffing up to accommodate more projects than we’ve had in the past.

AB: Where does most of the money go?

Salamone: Seventy-five percent of the costs goes directly to the research projects; the 25 percent that we retain pays for the publication expenses; the panels. We have a volunteer panel that oversees every project that we have; a different panel for each project; they’re topic experts. They in turn scope out the research approach for this. We draft together an RFP [request for proposal]; proposals then come in, and the panel reviews and selects the best ones. During the course of the research, the panel reviews all the deliverables and ultimately reads the first draft of the report before we go into publication. All of that — including the publication costs, the panel costs, the panel travel costs — comes out of our 25 percent.

AB: The program relies on volunteers from industry. What is expected of them?

Salamone: First off, the request for volunteers is sent out once a year. What we do when we’re talking with them when forming panels, we discuss the time requirement. There’s no preparation necessary; you come to the first meeting armed with the knowledge and experience that you already possess.

The first meeting is a two-day meeting. We scope the research need and how we might wish a contractor to do it. Everybody’s in the room; it’s a requirement.

At the end of that meeting, almost without fail, we have an RFP. As a result, an RFP is issued; proposals come in; we do a review; and then we send all of those proposals back out to the panel. Our average had been seven proposals per project; this past year the average went up to nine.

When we come together for the second meeting, we have a day-long debate and when we’re done we have selected a proposal that we’re going to proceed with for the contractor.

Once it is under contract, we will have interactions with each member of group, mainly through teleconferences or email exchanges. The contractor now is following the guidance given in the RFP; the panel reviews the results.

At the midpoint of a project we have one final meeting; the panel meets with the research team. The panel has one day to express their thoughts and give feedback to the contractor.

Some projects may have an industry vetting. At the very end of the project, the contractor produces a draft report, which will be used to publish. It is sent to the panel for a last chance to comment.

AB: How difficult is it to get volunteers in today’s economic environment?

Salamone: We pay for their travel; our meetings are in Washington. We’ll fly them to Washington, put them up in a hotel, and pay for their meals. Exceptions have been where airports are part of a city or state that won’t let you travel [at another’s expense]. It’s only happened three of four times, and we’ve had hundreds of people participate.

AB: How would you characterize the feedback you’re getting from volunteers?

Salamone: Across the board it’s positive. They enjoy working on a topic that they’re passionate about anyway. They’re meeting other people with similar interests, and the conversation is usually upbeat, informative, and free. It’s a lot more of an open conversation than some might be used to.

AB: Any particular surprises along the way, positive or negative?

Salamone: I came into this having an expectation that FAA would be less than cooperative. The surprise has been FAA’s approach to the open process; they share their opinions, not just agency opinions. In the end, FAA has said we’ve been able to tackle some of these issues in less than half the time it would have taken them. So they’re very supportive.

A lot of times what it seems is that they give us a topic; we go through our process and make a report; and then they use it as a basis for an Advisory Circular or whatever. In the end it benefits the industry because we have a much more collaborative process; a much more objective process that truly invites the industry to participate. What we produce, in my opinion, has greater value because industry is truly a participant.

AB: One hot issue with airports is customer service. Is that on ACRP’s radar screen?

Salamone: There are a couple of approaches to that; we’re working at the root first and working our way up. First, what are the types of performance measures that you would want to look at to discern your ability to meet customer needs? Secondary to that is, how can you collect the data you need to pursue that metric – customer surveys, etc.? The next step is probably benchmarking. Let’s look at ourselves over time; looking at ourselves compared to other airports; and perhaps comparing to other industries.

The final step is going to be best practices. That we’re not currently researching but it will be a natural follow-on to the work that we’re doing.

AB: Any particular finished documents that stand out for you?

Salamone: Absolutely. I have a couple that will come out in the next month or two -- managing small airports. My interest in small airports is deep-rooted. I was even mowing the grass at Burlington. Small airport managers have to know a lot about a lot of different things.

This particular report is a good guide, a textbook of sorts, for anybody thrust into the job of managing a small airport. It offers a good collection of resources for them to reach out to find answers.