Mayor John Hickenlooper is prepared to boost the salary of Denver International Airport's chief by 60 percent - or even more - to get a visionary leader for the nation's fifth-largest airport.
Hickenlooper has made much about his administration's frugality, but some aviation-industry observers say the salary of departing DIA manager Turner West - $151,029 - is too low to attract someone with a national or international reputation.
A Denver Post review of compensation for aviation directors at the country's busiest airports found DIA's pay to be the lowest of the group.
Based on a salary survey of the top 29 U.S. airports, Denver now is prepared to pay $150,000 to $240,000 for a new DIA manager, said Kelly Brough, Hickenlooper's chief of staff, who is leading the search.
Some say even the high end of that range may not be sufficient to attract a nationally recognized figure to head Denver's distinctive airport.
"It is time to place a world- class leader in charge of the airport," said Denver City Council President Michael Hancock, one of six local government and business leaders on the search committee. "I'm not sure the $240,000 is enough.
"This is a $600 million corporation, and 30,000 people depend on it for jobs. As it rises, the whole region rises. That's why it's so critically important we find the right person and we pay them adequately. You get what you pay for."
The committee - which also includes Denver chief financial officer Claude Pumilia, Denver attorney Manuel Martinez, Metro Denver Economic Development Corp. president Tom Clark, DIA Partnership president Mary Rose Loney and former DIA co-manager Vicki Braunagel - is in the process of selecting an executive-search firm that will screen candidates for the top DIA job.
In soliciting help from the headhunters, DIA said it is looking for a manager who "regularly uses advanced communication skills," who "creates a strategic vision for the airport" and who has "core competencies" in conflict management, financial management, decisiveness, vision, creative thinking, team building and 15 other areas.
In addition to these skills, the administration is looking for an airport chief who can showcase DIA during next summer's Democratic National Convention.
The 67-year-old West, who has been with the Denver airport system for 22 years, recently announced his decision to retire early next year. In his tenure, West rose through the maintenance and engineering ranks at Stapleton International Airport and DIA until Hickenlooper named him co-manager of aviation in 2003. West was named manager in March 2006.
DIA, which opened in 1995, is the nation's newest major airport and boasts advantages - including its efficient array of six nonintersecting runways and ample room for expansion - that are the envy of many aviation professionals around the country.
Yet some say DIA is suffering from a leadership vacuum, citing as evidence the airport's slow recovery from a blizzard that closed it last December.
A consultant hired by the city to review the airport's snow plan found staffing and communications deficiencies that hampered response to the storm.
When a DIA snowplow operator drove out on an active runway Feb. 2 into the path of a United Airlines jet, it exposed weaknesses in the airport's system of training employees who drive on the airfield.
A serious accident was averted when the United crew employed emergency braking to stop short of the plow, but the incident raised concerns at the Federal Aviation Administration.
In a March 13 letter, FAA officials told DIA it needed to revamp driver-training procedures.
In late May, a national study of airport customer satisfaction by J.D. Power and Associates did nothing to bolster DIA's reputation when it found the airport ranked near last among major U.S. airports in key customer- service categories.
In the Power survey, DIA recorded below-average ratings in categories such as terminal facilities, food and beverage, retail services and "overall airport satisfaction" - all areas influenced by airport management.
Hancock said DIA needs "someone who has a global vision who can also build a team to master the small things."
Jim DeLong, who headed DIA until May 1998, said candidates should not only look at money as they weigh the Denver airport job but also consider requesting an employment contract.
"More and more airports are having to offer contracts," DeLong said of pacts that help insulate airport directors from political interference and ensure that they will be on the scene long enough to make substantial changes.
Hickenlooper said he is open to offering a contract if that's what it takes to get the right DIA chief, and the mayor said he won't be limited by a salary that tops out at $240,000.
"We'll go out with our salary range," he said, and "if it does not get someone of sufficient caliber to take the airport to a new level, we'll go out, raise the salary range and look again."
Staff writer Jeffrey Leib can be reached at 303-954-1645 or firstname.lastname@example.org
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