The end of 2001 was a bad time for airports. The combination of economic downturn and travelers fearful in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks kept planes empty and airport revenue down.
In Jacksonville, that drop off came shortly before another momentous change: In October of that year, the airport system became an independent organization, splitting off from the Jacksonville Port Authority.
As John Clark shifted from vice president of the combined authority to executive director of the new Jacksonville Aviation Authority, his vision of his mission was shaped by the downward spiral in revenue and passenger numbers that afflicted Jacksonville International Airport. His job, he said, is to be ready for the next such downturn, to ensure the airport continues to grow no matter what.
"Shame on us, if we don't prepare," he says now, explaining that he envisions an airport that is "financially self-sufficient," that could still expand even without state or federal funds.
Those preparations are now being put into place as the Aviation Authority moves into the second year of a five-year plan Clark laid down in 2005 - and they're changing the authority in ways that have some employees running scared.
TIGHTENING THE SCREWS
The goal, Clark said: More revenue and more efficiency, which will require expanded job responsibilities and more reliance on outsourced labor.
The changes began last year when Clark cut his management staff in half, jettisoning three of the Aviation Authority's senior managers, including the chief operating officer and chief administrative officer, a move the authority says will save around $599,000 a year in salary and benefits. This year, Clark said, his focus will move to rank-and-file workers, affecting everyone from receptionists and secretaries to the unionized police force and maintenance department.
As the organization pushes to achieve its goals, Clark said, duties will change and some jobs will be done away with.
It's a shift in culture, the executive director acknowledged, one that has already generated pushback.
"I keep asking the question, what makes government different than private companies," he said. His answer: "A mentality of entitlement."
"People have been here so long, they think they're entitled to x. I'm in an industry that's saying 'that's not the case.'"
To combat that mentality, he said, the authority is considering outsourcing more labor, hiring contractors to do a variety of jobs at the four airports in the system, including Jacksonville International Airport. Clark stresses that he has not yet decided exactly which jobs he thinks could be more efficiently done by outsiders, but mentioned human resources, maintenance and police as areas under review.
Those suggestions have received an angry response from those who work at the authority, as well as outsiders.
"I don't see outsourcing at this time," said City Council member Glorious Johnson, the council's liaison with the Aviation Authority and a long-time supporter of Clark. "What I do see is working with the people who are already there."
The authority has tried outsourcing in the past, she said, and was left with dirty bathrooms and messy concourses when the custodial company that was hired didn't meet expectations. "Are you going to get people to do what [custodial] people are doing now?" Johnson asked. "They did that three years ago and it failed. Employees had to come in and fix what the outsourced workers messed up."
Even more upset are the current employees, particularly those in the two unions, both of which are in the midst of a fractious contract negotiations with the authority over issues ranging from performance bonuses to vacation time. The workers have been without a contract since October.