Feb. 12--If you see a black 2002 Corvette with HIA 1 on the license plate cruising from Camp Hill to Harrisburg International Airport, it's Fred Testa on his way to work.
Testa, 64, stands out, and not just because of the car or even the New England accent he describes as a "Rhode Island-Italian twang."
He is the highly visible, voluble and volatile executive director of the Lower Swatara Twp. airport -- its chief salesman and passionate advocate.
A new terminal and parking garage -- part of a $240 million expansion project -- were his idea. After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, he convinced his bosses on the board of the Susquehanna Area Regional Airport Authority to abandon their plan to expand the 17-year-old terminal. He had plans for a bigger terminal, one he could boast was the first designed with post-9-11 security considerations in mind.
Testa, who has an undergraduate degree from the University of Rhode Island and a law degree from Suffolk Law School in Boston, can be disarmingly charming when he is marketing the airport. He also can rail against his critics and show an impatient, even explosive, temper.
Testa acknowledges he can get testy sometimes. "Incompetence sets me off. Lack of understanding sets me off. Stupidity sets me off. I'm a very tough boss to work for. I demand they work hard and they work efficient. Does that mean I'm unreasonable? I don't think so," he says.
"I've always told everyone on my staff that everyone makes mistakes," he adds. "But don't ever make the same mistake twice."
In a Feb. 23, 2005, memo to airport tenants Testa accused some employees of using the terminal's smoking lounge "as a 'bitching' forum [for] venting improper observations and/or stories about themselves and their companies" in front of passengers.
Testa warned that "cameras and recording equipment are being placed in this smoking lounge to monitor and record these unseemly conversations and observations."
Airport spokesman Scott Miller said the memo was just a threat and no monitoring equipment was installed.
Admirers say he is simply running a tight ship at the airport.
Bob Barbush, president of Barbush Rentals Inc., which has the Avis car-rental franchise at HIA, remembers the time before Testa, when the state and then a management company ran the airport.
"Nobody has done more for this airport, that affects me, than Fred Testa," Barbush said. "Fred's management, along with the staff he currently has, [has produced] the best managed airport that I have ever been involved with."
Miller says Testa is a hands-on manager who walks the terminal building at least twice a day and drives the perimeter of the airport daily to make sure everything is operating smoothly.
Others believe his tempestuous temperament may actually help fuel his success.
Karen Deklinski, owner of the Perfectly Pennsylvania store in the terminal, laughed when asked about Testa's management style.
"He's definitely a character," she said. "When you need to get a project done as big as an airport, you need a bulldozer to get it done. You need a strong personality to get done something that big."
Testa attracted controversy at his other jobs, too.
After he left Manchester Airport in New Hampshire, where he was director for eight years, he was named, along with the city, in a lawsuit involving "job discrimination," according to court records.
Court documents state that the case, which involved a former airport employee, was "dismissed -- settled" in 2001. Efforts to reach the worker and her former attorney, as well as city officials and their attorneys, were unsuccessful.
Testa denies the allegation and says the lawsuit was settled "for almost no dollars." He says he can't talk about the exact terms because the judge imposed a nondisclosure order.
Testa was fired in 2000 from his next job as director of Philadelphia International Airport after 11 months and escorted from his office by police.
Philadelphia Mayor John Street said at the time that Testa was fired because he was "highly disrecommended," according to accounts in The Philadelphia Inquirer. An effort to reach Street was unsuccessful.
Testa had been hired by Street's predecessor, Ed Rendell, before he became governor.
The Inquirer said Testa was described by some people as "abrupt, disrespectful, heavy-handed [and] obstreperous." Some former colleagues also described him as "a hardworking, big-thinking bureaucrat, a man unafraid to ruffle feathers to get what he wanted for his airports," the paper said.
Testa, himself, admits to being "blunt and irascible." He maintains he was fired in retaliation for criticizing city policy and for refusing to award contracts to Street's friends and supporters, when they were the high bidders. "I wear that firing like a badge of honor," Testa said.
Testa and his wife, Kathryn, made some of those points in a lawsuit filed against Street and the city. The suit claimed deprivation of his First Amendment right to free speech, defamation and loss of consortium because of the city's actions. The U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania dismissed their suit in May 2002.
The Susquehanna Area Regional Airport Authority hired Testa in 2001 to take over management of HIA after several years of declining passenger traffic. He has a yearly contract, and his salary was last raised at the end of 2004 to $175,000 a year.
Aviation consultant Mike Boyd of The Boyd Group in Evergreen, Colo., said he only knows of Testa by his reputation, which is good within the industry. "You've got a very aggressive airport manager," he said.
Given the turbulent state of the airline industry, Boyd said, it's not Testa's fault that HIA has higher fares and hasn't been able to attract a low-cost carrier.
"He does deliver, but you can't ask the impossible of the man," Boyd said. "People don't understand the airline industry."
Testa continues to plug HIA at every opportunity. The license plate on his wife's Jeep Cherokee says: "Fly HIA."
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