Oct. 10--Walter Cathey's job description is fairly straightforward. He's in charge of first and second impressions of the city, including two of the runways that give visitors their first feel for it.
"We consider ourselves the front door," he says from his cinderblock-walled office at Gen. DeWitt Spain Airport, one of two small airports he manages for the Memphis-Shelby County Airport Authority.
"People coming to our airports want to be close to Downtown. They want to get in, take care of business and be on their way."
With the practicality of an electrician -- which he is -- Cathey ordered golf carts to meet passengers at their planes.
It's not a big gesture until you have to walk the tarmac at DeWitt Spain or Charles C. Baker in the rain or in the July heat.
He also suggested new lighting for the DeWitt Spain runway and a self-serve electronic weather system for pilots with real-time information.
For his attention to detail, Cathey, 45, was named the best general aviation airport manager in the state, an honor given once a year by the Tennessee Aeronautics Commission.
He was chosen from nearly 70 general airport managers statewide.
"This award is given to airport managers that deliver services that supersede the norm," said Bob Moss, commission director.
"We're also looking for people who create positive and productive atmospheres."
Both the airports and Memphis International Airport also received the commission's Front Door of Excellence honor, a tribute to their level of service and commitment to quality.
DeWitt Spain, also nominated as one of three of most improved general aviation airports, has received the Door of Excellence for 10 consecutive years.
Every city the size of Memphis has several airports designed to funnel small aircraft away from the congestion and hubbub of the metropolitan airport.
Most aren't profitable. Baker and DeWitt Spain are, thanks to growing flight schools, competitive fuel prices and Cathey's zeal for gleaming tile.
"I think anyone would agree the facilities are cleaner. Walter stays on top of maintenance. I've seen him out there on Sundays cutting the grass," said Gene Holcomb, former president of Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Tennessee and a longtime pilot.
Cathey and his five-member staff care for 50 buildings, 200-plus tenants, four public restrooms and lots of grass. Both airports are open seven days a week.
"Ideally, we would like to grow and expand those airports for people going Downtown," said Walter White, director of airport operations and public safety.
Until 2004, when Cathey took over as manager, DeWitt Spain and Charles Baker were run by contractors that sold fuel and paid the authority a percentage of the sales.
When the airport authority took over, it tightened efficiencies, including cutting expenses.
Since then, traffic has risen steadily, including a 42 percent gain in arrivals and departures at DeWitt Spain alone.
"From a manager's standpoint, we take a great deal of pride in Walter," White said. "He's very focused and attuned to customer service.
"But the biggest thing is, he's very sensible about how we spend money. He always looks to the future in decision-making."
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