EDITORIAL Higher pay for DIA chief begets great expectations

A smoothly run Denver International Airport is vital to the state's economy, so Mayor John Hickenlooper is wise to take the search for a new airport chief very seriously.

DIA, a $600 million operation, handled more than 47 million passengers in 2006 and was the 10th-busiest airport in the world.

It would seem to be a coveted job in the industry - if not for the salary. The current airport manager, Turner West, is retiring and his annual pay of $151,029 isn't competitive with commensurate positions.

The mayor has proposed boosting the salary by 60 percent or more to attract a nationally recognized professional. The chief of Atlanta's airport, for example, earns more than $255,000 annually.

We're not typically moved by those national "peer salary surveys," but boosting pay for the Denver job is a prudent move given the importance of the position. For a premium price, constituents - who include local residents and airlines that use the facility - have a right to expect top-flight leadership.

The airport, which gets accolades from travelers, is not without challenges. Last winter, the airport shut down for 45 hours after a blizzard that dumped 20 to 22 inches of snow on the runways. A consultant found the airport was inadequately prepared, a situation that must be remedied.

In February, there was a serious incident involving a near-collision between a plane and a snowplow. DIA has taken steps to address the safety lapse, and it will be the responsibility of the new airport chief to ensure the new safeguards are adequate.

Furthermore, the new airport chief will have to successfully oversee a $160 million expansion of Concourse C, which is expected to take three years. Southwest Airlines and others will use the new gates to accommodate expanded flight schedules. In other infrastructure issues, the airport has had serious problems with deteriorating concrete used in runways. Obviously, that must be dealt with as well.

On the up side, the airport has seen its noise complaints decrease, a situation everyone would like to see continue. And it was recently honored by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for its "green" practices, including recycling aircraft de-icing fluids and use of alternative-fuel vehicles.

As the city moves forward in choosing a new airport chief, we hope it selects someone with the experience to effectively lead airport employees and the polish to negotiate with airlines. The city also must give that person the tools to succeed, including the ability to choose a management team.

The airport, which opened 12 years ago, has been an economic success story for the region. It will take vision and commitment - as well as a competitive salary - to continue on the path.