“Certainly I want to be on a parallel track with the city and the region, ensuring that the image we present as the front door to the city, and the last thing they see leaving New Orleans, is a good one,” Hunter said.
Dan Packer, New Orleans Airport Board chairman, says the airport needs a business-minded, innovative director with strong management skills.
“He has the job until we select someone else — and it may be him,” said Packer. “That means that he has all the full authority that comes with the job. Our expectations are that he’ll exercise that authority as if he were aviation director.”
Packer said the board is searching for a director who has “no fear of the unknown.” The unknown involves the uncertain New Orleans recovery and hurricane threats.
“All of us in this region, we’re all treading on brand new ground,” said Packer. “The aviation director really has to be someone who has the kind of integrity and courage to move forward and is able to think long term and plan long term.”
The airport bears a crucial function for a city whose economic viability is based in tourism, Hunter said. He is taking the place of Director Roy Williams, whose resignation becomes effective May 31, one day before the start of the 2006 hurricane season. Williams accepted a similar position for an airport in Salt Lake City.
Hunter, a Detroit native, has been deputy director of operations and maintenance for six years. He is also acting deputy director of safety and security and acting director of the airport’s Disadvantaged Business Enterprise office.
The New Orleans Aviation Board appointed Hunter interim aviation director until a national search is complete anywhere from six to 14 months from now. With 20 years of aviation experience in the military and at Atlantic City International, Hunter said he is prepared to lead the airport through any possible crises.
“I’ve worked in air traffic control when you’re basically controlling the airplanes in the sky and now I’m working in airport management when you control them on the ground,” said Hunter. “The only difference between those two jobs is the stress level.”
Hunter, 40, said he prefers the “chronic” stress of airport management versus the “acute” stress of air traffic control. Williams said Hunter’s role as head of operations, security and the DBE program, especially during the last nine months, allowed him to showcase “good crisis management” skills and gain “good exposure to financial and administrative issues.” Williams said a challenge will be to restore airport passenger traffic now at 51 percent of pre-Katrina levels. March ridership totaled 470,000 passengers versus 920,000 in March 2005.
“As passenger traffic continues to build, managing that growth is very important,” said Williams. “Also, making certain the airport and its development fully supports the region’s recovery.”
Williams said the airport is adding an average of five flights per month and he expects Armstrong to attain pre-Katrina flight levels by June 2007 — a feat he didn’t expect nine months ago. His goal is to keep more passengers coming through the airport and to spread the message that New Orleans is strong, said Hunter.
The airport has issues with its vendors, some failing financially, especially those stuck in concourses not heavily traveled. Twenty-five out of 36 vendors reopened in the first quarter but sales are only at 28 percent of pre-Katrina levels.
“It is my goal to help out small businesses and to find some way to help bring about some relief to our tenants,” said Hunter. “We’ve done all we can do, at least in the arena of keeping the airlines’ cost down, but you’re operating at 50 percent of your traffic. Everybody’s costs are not operating at that same 50 percent. Your cost is fixed no matter if you move one person through here or 10 million.
“I understand if the vendors are looking to the airport to help them out and we will,” said Hunter.
With conventions returning, Hunter said he plans to work with the tourism industry on restoring New Orleans’ image. He began by sprucing up the terminal with better lighting, new paint and carpet and restoring rest rooms at a cost of $1.5 million. He will improve ground transportation by working to provide larger shuttles at convention time and partnering with the New Orleans Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau to sponsor a “taxicab appreciation day” so the New Orleans Taxicab Bureau can improve existing cabs.
Hunter in the running
Regarding long-term plans, Packer said the interest in the possible relocation of Armstrong to eastern New Orleans has cooled until the airport can better pre-Katrina passenger levels.
“First things first,” said Packer. “To get to the point where we say we need to do something with a new airport, we have to have a reason for doing it and the largest reason for doing that is the number of (departing) passengers and the amount of cargo that goes through here. We have to get that back to more than pre-Katrina levels to make it viable.”
Hunter said his most pressing issue is preparing Armstrong for hurricane season. He is significantly increasing provisions such as food and water and making sure staff member families are taken care of prior to a storm instead of sheltering them at the airport.
“From the state on down, the level of awareness, the level of cooperation, the logistics of pulling things together between Orleans and Jefferson (parishes) — all that synergy there is pretty familiar because we’ve had eight months to try to work on it together,” said Hunter. “My goal is ensuring that the public is confident the airport has a plan and it’s prepared for natural disasters. We demonstrated that during Katrina and now that we’ve learned from Katrina we will be in a better position to handle the next.”
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