Patrick Wilson, director of Tri-Cities Regional Airport (TRI) is a fun and informative guy to interview. The Tri-Cities, BTW, are Johnson City and Kingsportin, TN, and Bristol, in both TN and VA.
I used and enjoy TRI often. Just before I met with Mr. Wilson, my son, daughter-in-law and only grandchild — a handsome, four-year-old boy-genius, BTW, who takes after his grandfather (pictures provided upon request) — flew into TRI from Boston. They reported great service by TRI, and I explained that I had arranged for that with Mr. Wilson. That’s a lie, but it was fun anyway.
Recently, TRI has added a new hangar, a new taxiway, and new apron. That’s what I wanted to discuss with Mr. Wilson, but we discussed much more.
Heretofore, TRI’s Runway 5 had no taxiway going to the departure/approach end, so for takeoff on Runway 5, it was necessary to taxi on the runway itself from the closest taxiway. If you landed on Runway 23 — the opposite runway — and rolled out long, you had to taxi on the runway back to the nearest taxiway. The inconvenience of this was minimized because most landings/takeoffs at TRI are on Runway 23, because of prevailing winds.
Still the problem did tend to decrease efficiency and safety while increasing liability. A few years ago Mr. Wilson showed me the plans for the new taxiway, which required eliminating a nearby road, then building a new road farther from the runway. That’s a big order, but today it’s a done deal. The extra efficiency/safety is especially important during race weeks at Bristol Motor Speedway which brings in a blue jillion corporate jets.
I asked Mr. Wilson to what he attributed the airport’s continued success during so many years of rapid change. He paused, then said, “If you have time, I’ll show you. I love to discuss airport finances.” I certainly had time. He pulled out two sheets of paper and I got a lesson in the art of old-fashioned truth-in-budgeting financial planning.
The first sheet was a vertical bar graph showing the ups and downs of yearly airport revenue from 1976 through 2011. He drew a line showing the rising revenue trend from 1976 through 1979. “I’m sure you remember what happened toward the end of those years; Federal deregulation of the airlines. Airline flights dropped and so did our revenues.”
He next drew a steep, slanting line showing the revenue drop thereafter through 1982. “Then,” he said, “From 1982 through 1989, the airlines fought for market share rather than profit. Our revenue rose, but airline profits went down.”
He followed this fascinating history story through 2011, explaining each drop and each climb in airport revenues. Then he pulled out the second page, which showed the lines for the same years representing TRI costs with the ups and downs of revenue.
The airport commission had planned in advance for each drop in revenue — estimating future revenue from airlines, concessions, parking, and other sources — then lowered the planned budget accordingly. It worked. Revenue exceeded airport expenses for each — repeat, each year!
Don’t you wish all guvmints at all levels could be so smart and so disciplined?