New Springfield Executive Wants to Show the Airport has Value

Fresh seafood flown daily into the airport business park.

It seemed feasible in the summer of 2005, as officials at Abraham Lincoln Capital Airport tried to persuade Robert's Sysco Food Service to bring a distribution center and accompanying Robert's Seafood Market as the first tenant for a long-dormant business park on the south side of the airport.

The outcome: The distribution center went to Lincoln. The seafood shop remained at the original location on Jefferson Street.

Prospects for an airport business park along North Veterans Parkway are just one of the many issues tackled by Mark Hanna less than a month into his new job as executive director of the Springfield airport. There's also air service, including the much-promoted start of service to Washington, D.C., on April 24, the impending relocation of Air National Guard jets, meeting with the 40 employees of the Springfield Airport Authority, a $5.5 million annual budget and the day-to-day maintenance of a sprawling airport.

There's also getting to know a community that airport officials are counting on to help rebuild passenger numbers, which dropped last year to their lowest in at least three decades.

"We need to demonstrate locally that we can make this work," Hanna, 33, said. "We want people to take a look at the value of using Abraham Lincoln Capital Airport."

Airport backers are relying heavily on the start of a daily United Express flight to Dulles International Airport in Washington. The carrier has been guaranteed up to $1.4 million in subsidies in the first year if the flight loses money.

United also will drop one of its five existing flights to O'Hare International Airport to Chicago when Dulles service begins.

"The surveys show there's a large number of passengers who want to fly to Washington D.C.," Hanna said. The airport also will become the only downstate airport with direct flights to the nation's capital.

The airport picked up service to Midway Airport in Chicago for the first time in nearly two years with the start of Big Sky Airlines flights in December. The airport has service to St. Louis on AmericanConnection.

Hanna became well acquainted with the struggles of downstate air service as director of the Quincy airport for eight years prior to taking the Springfield job. He succeeded Eric Frankl, who left after 41/2 years as executive director of the Springfield airport to accept a job at an airport in Toledo, Ohio.

Hanna's airport office also is a long way from the summer of 2005, when he was in the middle of an 11-month tour of duty as a platoon sergeant in Iraq with an engineering unit of the Iowa Army National Guard.

He earned a Bronze Star and a combat action badge for his unit's work in detecting and destroying roadside bombs that have proven so deadly for U.S. troops in Iraq. He was promoted to first sergeant in April 2006.

"We would go out on rural roads and look for IEDs (improvised explosive devices), and that was our primary mission," Hanna said, adding that the unit soon learned insurgents had favored areas for planting bombs.

"You knew if there was one there last night, there'd probably be one there tonight," he said. "As you can imagine, it was kind of stressful."

Hanna continues to report to his guard unit one weekend a month and remains subject to call-up, though none is imminent. Hanna also said a tour of duty in a combat zone weighed in his decision whether or not to take the Springfield job.

"After coming back from Iraq, my wife and I really struggled with this decision. Will it be career or family oriented?" he said.

Hanna's wife, Becky, is a physician's assistant. The couple has an 18-month-old son.

Hanna also is considering the future of the 183rd Tactical Fighter Wing of the Illinois Air National Guard, which is scheduled to relocate its F-16 fighter jets in 2008, possibly to a base in Indiana. Airport and guard officials have begun looking for other military missions for the remaining Springfield operations.

"It's a major issue that we have to find an answer to," he said.

Hanna said the airport is in excellent physical shape after a series of runway improvements and a complete overhaul of the main terminal the last few years. He said he also is proud that inspectors from the Federal Aviation Administration, who made an annual inspection in January, found zero safety violations for the eighth year in a row.

Among major capital improvements remaining is relocation of the main airport entrance on J. David Jones Parkway, though no schedule has been set.

Both Hanna and airport board chairman Frank Vala said the south-side business park is a work in progress, but the idea has received renewed attention as part of a long-term strategy of boosting revenues from sources unrelated to air service.

"We really got hyped up when we thought there was a chance to keep Sysco ... we want to market that land, as there's a lot of opportunity to earn money from leasing," Vala said.

Making the airport more customer friendly is a central theme of airport marketing efforts this year. Included are a new one-stop customer-service counter in the airport terminal and the Sky Club, a program that offers members their own lounge, reserved parking, food discounts and other amenities.

Still, Hanna said bringing passengers back to the Springfield airport ultimately is about ticket prices and flight convenience in competition with other regional airports, especially Bloomington and Peoria.

"We all understand it's a tight market here, and we're trying to be very aggressive for that last passenger," he said.

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