New San Jose, Calif. Airport Chief Looks at Expansion, Curfew, Track Record

Bill Sherry is set to arrive May 2 from Port St. Lucie, Fla., to become Mineta San Jose International Airport's new top administrator. As aviation director, he will oversee air service for about 11 million passengers a year, as well confront a formidable challenge -- completing the $2.8 billion airport expansion plan in the absence of sufficient funding.

Another problem he'll face is the airport's new noise curfew policy and the strain it has put on already tense relations with neighbors.

Sherry, 49, was hired by the city at an annual salary of $185,390 after being interviewed by two panels, which included representatives from nearby neighborhoods, the local business community and executives from airlines and other airports.

Sherry is a pilot, aviation consultant, accountant and real-estate broker who directed aviation operations for 15 years in Florida, including those at Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport, where he oversaw a $4.2 billion expansion.

He replaces Ralph Tonseth, who retired after 14 years.

Here, Sherry answers questions about his new job:

Q: How are you going to change neighbors' perception that the airport is unresponsive to their concerns? Just this month, for instance, the airport gave the community extremely short notice about a public meeting until Councilman Ken Yeager complained and got it rescheduled for a later date.

A: If that's their impression, then it must be true. I want to start a new relationship with them, and I want them to know I'm sensitive to their issues.

Q: Do you have anything specific in mind for improving relations?

A: I can only speak for the first couple of weeks. I'm preparing an orientation program, and as part of that, I've asked to be put in touch with the appropriate representatives of all the neighborhoods. And I certainly want to hear from them.

Q: In Fort Lauderdale, you clashed with neighbors opposed to a plan you supported to add a second major runway. Were you forced to resign?

A: No. What happened in Fort Lauderdale was the community was trying to transition from a spring break-college town to a more cosmopolitan, upscale destination. They asked me to bring in as much growth and development as I could, and I did that. Fort Lauderdale became the fastest-growing large-hub airport in the United States. Then the community passed a charter amendment that took commissioners from being at-large to representing districts. The community started saying maybe growth is not that desirable. I was labeled pro-growth, and that was a label I couldn't shake. I don't think I was pro-growth.

Q: But you continued to advocate for the second runway?

A: I was prepared, willing and able to stop the runway if that was the goal of the county commission. But I don't believe I'm hired to sugarcoat things. I'm not hired to speak lies. I had an obligation to the county commission to advise them of the negative attributes that would result if that runway was not built. It appears those facts are coming to fruition, since Fort Lauderdale now has almost as many delays as the nation's two busiest airports combined. I was also concerned that the noise problems would be worse without that runway because of having so many delayed planes circling and because they're now going to be faced with letting jets land on the south runway and on a diagonal runway that is the noisiest for the neighborhoods.

Q: Did the Fort Lauderdale airport where you last worked have a noise curfew?

A: No.

Q: In San Jose earlier this month, relations between the airport and residents concerning the curfew deteriorated when America West launched a daily flight from Las Vegas that lands at 1:25 a.m., about two hours later than the usual curfew cutoff of 11:30 p.m. The airline could have flown the 50-seater in the middle of the night under the city's old weight-based curfew, as well as under its new noise-based policy. But America West originally wanted to fly larger, somewhat noisier jets, and could still seek approval from the Federal Aviation Administration to do so in the future. What will you do to enforce the curfew?

A: I will enforce the curfew to the maximum extent possible. If an airline breaks that curfew, then I will use every measure I have available. If they're not breaking that curfew, then the only option I have at that point is to try to work with the carrier base and look at the alternatives available to try to achieve their business objectives while at the same time also trying to maintain the spirit of the curfew.

Q: San Jose officials have no solid financial plan to complete the expansion and airlines are balking at the share they're being asked to pay. What can you do about it?

A: At Fort Lauderdale when I came in, the airline relationship was extraordinarily poor. They wouldn't even come in to discuss the issues. Within six months, I got my first unanimous approval from them, and for every year thereafter, every single item, without exception, not only passed, but passed unanimously. Airlines have to be convinced the expansion is being done in a fiscally prudent way. Also, I broke the program into phases that weren't tied to a particular timeline, but to passenger traffic.

Q: What are San Jose's chances of becoming a bigger international airport? Or do you think it's destined to be for low-cost carriers?

A: My No. 1 priority is to achieve the objectives of the city council. One thing I will say, though, is that I think this airport needs to brand itself in terms of what distinguishes it and what distinguishes San Jose as a community. With all the other airports, and throughout my research and in my discussions, there's a big question mark every time I ask that question. It's going to be a top priority of mine working with the city council and City Manager Del Borgsdorf to come up with a business plan for this airport that sets forth what the goals and objectives are and how to achieve them.

Q: You're a nationally recognized expert. Why did you take the job?

A: I was looking for three things. I love challenges, and you have a bucket-load of challenges here. My wife and I were looking for a livable community, and the Bay Area is our favorite travel destination. We must have visited here two dozen times. The third thing is a connection with the people.

Q: After you left Fort Lauderdale, the Broward County Commission discovered that an artist painted your face, along with what appeared to be Jesus' face, in clouds on a decorative ceiling in a terminal hallway. The commission had the images removed after you left. Did you authorize them?

A: No, I had no idea until my project manager came to me and said, ''We might have a problem.'' By the way, the artist said the elderly man with the beard was Old Man Winter looking down at the tourists, not God or Jesus.