Dirk Vanderleest ready to deplane after quarter century at the control

Dirk Vanderleest

Dirk Vanderleest

Dirk Vanderleest and Jackson Medgar Wiley Evers International Airport have shared nearly half their lifetimes together.

The airport situated in Rankin County had just turned 25 when Vanderleest arrived from Huntsville, Ala., where he managed that city’s airport under an executive director. Vanderleest’s arrival in Jackson at 29 gave him the distinction of being one of the youngest directors of a full-service commercial airport in the country.

Now the Netherlands-born Vanderleest, whose parents brought him to America as an infant, has two milestones awaiting him in September: His 55th birthday and retirement as CEO of the Jackson Municipal Airport Authority.

Vanderleest said last week will step down Sept. 30 with aviation still in his blood, but is unsure whether he will remain in the field.

“I’ve been doing this job for 25 years and am under the state retirement system,” he said in an interview last week.

“After 30 years on the airport side of the industry it was time for a change — time to do something entirely different.”

But just how different is not yet clear, Vanderleest added.

He and wife Ann will remain in Jackson, he said, and are still mulling the next chapter of their lives.

They met at Auburn University, where Vanderleest had come from his New York hometown of Liverpool to study aviation management.

“The grace of God you might call it,” he said of guidance he received to go “south and meet a redhead named Ann Dawkins.”

He made his first stop after Auburn a job with aircraft manufacturer McDonnel Douglass in  St. Louis. At the end of three years there, he went into airport management Huntsville Municipal Airport, now Huntsville International.

Five years later he arrived in Jackson to run what was then the city’s 25-year-old commercial airport, a facility that the U.S. Customs Service a year earlier designated an “International Port of Entry,” thus entitling it to a name change from Jackson Municipal Airport to Jackson International Airport.

The airport had the further distinction as one of the first of its size in the nation to be constructed with parallel runways instead of cross-wind intersecting ones used by the smaller aircraft operations.

One of those runways — the one designated as the “East Runway” — became a challenge for Vanderleest after some starts and stops in getting it repaved and problematic Yazoo clay removed from beneath it. The approximately $13-million project, authorized by the Municipal Airport Authority in 2010, overcame a contract dispute with a North Carolina contractor and a shutdown period before completion late last year.

The closures caused air traffic controllers to launch departures between arrivals instead of using one runway for planes coming in and the other for departing aircraft, the Associated Press reported at the time.

Vanderleest’s successor will oversee similar work set to be done on the west runway. At the moment, work is underway on fixing up the air carrier and general aviation apron, according to the retiring CEO.

Other work includes stormwater improvements at Jackson-Evers and an overlay on the primary runway at the Municipal Airport Authority’s Hawkins Field, he said.

This summer was to mark the start of a $39 million  renovation of Jackson International’s terminal and reconstruction of security checkpoints. The dominoes that fell after January’s announced departure of Southwest Airlines have forced a delay in that work until at least next summer.

With the June loss of Southwest and the revenues it generated for the airport, Fitch Ratings Service dropped its rating on the terminal project’s bonds to BBB+ from A.

Better to wait until Fitch reassesses the bond rating next summer, the Airport Authority decided.

Vanderleest said he thinks the Authority must show some budget tightening to regain the higher Fitch rating. The Authority must adopt a new budget by Oct. 1.

For now, “We’re reducing our expenses,” Vanderleest said.

While he conceded the loss of Southwest has had a “significant impact” on the airport, he insisted the  airline’s departure had “nothing whatsoever” to do with his decision to retire so soon afterward.

Further budget reductions could include a downsizing of the terminal and security checkpoint work, which is part of the airport’s $88 million 5-year improvement plan, he added.

To offset the revenue loss from the end of Southwest service, the Airport Authority increased landing fees by 18 percent and parking fees 8 percent at the beginning of fiscal 2014 and implemented an additional 15 percent landing fees increase in May.

Whether carrier, parking fees and car rental fees will go up in the new fiscal Vanderleest can’t say.  “I can’t address that because after Sept. 30 I won’t be at the helm,” he noted.

The prudent thing to do, he said, is to look at overall enplanements and how to downsize the terminal and security projects.

Enplanement losses have implications beyond the bottom lines of carriers. Passenger declines can severely damage airport revenues by causing the loss of dollars from non-airline sources such as parking and rental car activities. These account for two-thirds of the airport’s operating revenues of $17.6 million, Fitch said last spring in detailing its rating decision.

Vanderleest said commercial carriers have not resisted the series of carrier-fee increases and insisted operating costs for carriers at Jackson-Evers are still at or about the industry standard of 3 percent. “Why would they be increasing aircraft and aircraft frequency” to fill the void left by Southwest if fees s were becoming overly burdensome? he said of remaining carriers Delta, US Airways, American Airlines and United Airlines.

In the meantime, he expects Jackson-Evers to do its part to minimize fee increases through its own belt tightening.

He is retiring, he said, with the airport financially sound, citing 300 days of positive cash flow despite recent revenue losses.

Fiscal adversity is not new to Jackson-Evers, Vanderleest noted, and pointed to the challenges brought by 911 and later Hurricane Katrina. “We’ve been through that before in a number of cycles.”

And one circumstance is not going to change: Jackson Medgar Wiley Evers International is Mississippi’s busiest passenger airport.

“Statewide,” Vanderleest said, “we still have the best markets and seats available.”

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