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Q&A: Dirk B. Vanderleest, CEO, Jackson Municipal Airport Authority

Jackson’s Sky chief

Fascination with airports turns into a career

Dirk Vanderleest always knew he wanted to be involved in the airport industry. He is certainly involved, serving as CEO of the Jackson Municipal Airport Authority and overseeing both the Jackson-Evers International Airport and Hawkins Field Airport in Jackson. The MBJ recently caught up with the busy executive and asked him about the current state of his industry, what his airports have done to offset the airlines’ woes, his management style and more.

Q —  Tell us about JMAA and its operations. How many does it employ, and what is the operating budget?

A — Jackson Municipal Airport Authority’s mission is very simple; to operate Jackson-Evers International and Hawkins Field and thereby connect its patrons to the worldwide intermodal transportation network. JMAA employs 108 team members whose vision is to provide exemplary transportation services and facilities to both airports and thereby be a catalyst for community and economic development. Our annual operations and maintenance budget is over $15 million in revenue while our expenses are approaching $14 million.

Please keep in mind JMAA is totally self sufficient; we don’t receive any tax subsidy from any government agency for our day-to-day operations.

Our capital programming budget for the next five years exceeds $50 million. Those capital improvements are funded primarily from Department of Transportation, Federal Aviation Administration, Airport Improvement Program, Passenger Facility Charges and Mississippi Department Transportation, Multimodal Program.

Q —  Always volatile, the airline industry has been hard pressed by the recession. The economic woes have followed closely on the heels of 9/11, Hurricane Katrina and other difficult issues for the airlines. What has JMAA done to offset airlines’ woes over the past few years? Diversifying is the key, right?

A — It has been a very challenging decade for the aviation industry since 2001. The airlines themselves have lost billions of dollars in total operating cost. JMAA has maintained a strong balance sheet to cover the ebbs and flow due to the volatile economic conditions. One area of concentration has been in expanding our non-aviation revenue source, which makes up 60 percent of our total revenue. These include parking, concessions (rental cars, food beverage, news/magazines and gifts. We have also credited the airlines in fees approximately three million over a three-year period, which in turn lowers their operating cost at Jackson-Evers International Airport.

Q —  What led you to the airport business? If you hadn’t gone into this industry, what might have been your career choice?

A — My first airplane ride was in 1966 out of Friendship International Airport, now known as BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport. I knew then I wanted to be around airports. The newspaper business might have been my next choice.  I delivered newspapers, evening edition in upstate New York. Rain or shine or even blizzards, it did not matter, our customers got their paper on time!

Q —  Describe your management style. How do you motivate your people?

A — First and foremost, JMAA is heavily involved in the regulatory side of business; safe operations is paramount, no exceptions. Having said that, the freedom to discover and make the right choices. In giving our senior management team the latitude to make a difference and make JMAA a “Best Place to Work in Mississippi.” Therefore, they see the fruits of their labor at work.

Q —  What advice would you give anyone interested in going into airport management? What skills are required?

A — Patience, patience, patience — along with good listening and communication skills. Cooperative spirit, embrace new technology to name a few; while at the end of the day, it is about relationships.

Q —  What’s your future vision for JMAA?

A — JMAA is moving forward on its VISION 2030 plan. First and foremost, it’s about our employees. Being the best-trained and educated workforce this state has seen for airport operations. Our physical properties where both Jackson-Evers International and Hawkins Field Airport gleam with polished “first impression, last impression” is reflected in every physical aspect of our 3,400 acres. Finally, we have one of the lowest operating costs in the Southeast for airlines to operate.

Q —  When you decide to call it a career at JMAA, what would you like people to say about you? How would you like to be remembered?

A — He made a difference in the community.

Hometown: Liverpool, N.Y.
Degree(s): B.S., aviation management, Auburn University
Hobbies/Interests: Snorkeling, fishing, cooking, theology
Favorite Movie: “Blind Side”
Last Book Read: “Horse Soldiers” by Doug Stanton
Person who’s inspired you the most: Ed Mitchell, retired executive director, Huntsville Madison County Airport Authority

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About Wally Northway

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