Q&A with Airport President and CEO Reg Wright

On past and present, the way forward, courting business and why Gander is grander
We can do that

We can do that

The runways of Gander International Airport can accommodate the world’s largest and heaviest aircraft, including the leviathan An-225 and A380.

 

Reg Wright InterviewHow are you settling in to President’s role?
I’ve been in this chair now for five months. It’s been extremely busy, but I’m enjoying it.

 

They say the first 90 days for a new leader is pivotal. Is that true?
I’d say that depends on the leader, the business and what you are trying to achieve. Certainly the first 90 days is an important time to establish a strategic direction and begin earning the confidence of the team around you. You have to build trust with staff, partners and the greater community. I had the advantage of coming from the organization rather than arriving cold so I already had insight on the key opportunities and challenges.

 

What is the CEO’s role?
The CEO manages operations at the airport and is ultimately accountable for all aspects of that. What the CEO really manages is the organizational context- we have a capable team of professionals that runs the day-to-day operations. But honestly, the reason any CEO is hired, whether it’s at IBM or Lufthansa Airlines or the Gander International Airport Authority, is to grow the business. That’s my main prerogative – to grow the business. Our Board of Directors provides the oversight and strategic direction that charts the course.

 

What’s the key to managing a team?
The best managers don’t require much managing. You surround yourself with people smarter and more capable than you. You give them the tools, support and trust to do their jobs. A CEO is only as good as the sum of the team. Thankfully, I have a great team around me who believes deeply in what we are trying to do here at the airport. They themselves do a great job of managing their respective teams.

 

What’s the biggest pitfall for a new CEO?
Getting stuck behind your desk.

 

You have some big shoes to fill after Gary Vey’s retirement.
Gary gave his very best for the 17 years he steered this ship as President. He was a very capable individual and he went to the edge and back for this airport, time and again. People who aren’t close to the airport probably don’t understand how he fought and bled for this place. He left behind a great legacy and a strong foundation to build upon.

 

And your chairperson clued up as well this Fall.
Fred Moffitt finished up in September. He gave our Board of Directors nine very good years, six as chairperson. Some of those years were quite difficult and Fred was dedicated to the task at hand, however thorny it got. The chairperson’s role isn’t all ribbon cuttings and speeches. Des Dillon took the reins as chairperson and, like Fred, he is more than capable and has plenty of experience. Anyone that knows Des will say he’s a top shelf individual and is very well respected in the community. I have every confidence in Des and our Board of Directors.

 

You previously served as the Director of Marketing, so what happens with that part of the organization?
Gary’s retirement provided an opportunity for the organization to consolidate management positions. I’m working double-hatted and fulfilling both roles, although the management team has also taken on broader portfolios with regard to marketing and business development. Everyone on our staff is filling multiple roles to get the job done so the CEO should be no different. Our organization is too small and the task at hand too large to have executives and staff confined to rigid silos and job descriptions. The job description is basically ‘whatever it takes to get it done’.

 

So what’s your goal?
The goal is to maintain a safe and viable international airport for the betterment and benefit of the region we serve. We are trying to build lasting success for Gander Airport.

 

One of the big expenses the airport has identified is the terminal building.
The terminal is overbuilt for our needs, current and projected. The expenses associated with a vast, antiquated facility, along with the risks that carries, are a serious concern and one we have to address. The airport needs to be situated in a properly sized facility with reasonable operating costs. Gander’s terminal heating bill alone is five times the amount of some comparable airports across Atlantic Canada.

 

People seem deeply concerned about preserving the old historic ATB, especially the international lounge.
Of course. That’s fully expected given Gander’s storied past, unique design and the deep attachment many people feel to this place. We are hopeful the relevant parts of the old terminal can be given new life in another form, hopefully in a way complementary to airport purposes and benefiting the community.

 

How do you make and defend a decision where history and future planning are at odds?
There’s nothing in my job description about being a museum curator. Don’t get me wrong, I am a big fan of our built heritage and history and have gone some lengths personally to promote that, but we run under business principles and make business decisions in the interest of the region we serve. It’s up to someone else to champion lounge preservation; the airport will entertain any viable proposal but it’s not my job to do it. I believe we have an opportunity to achieve both: a new terminal and maintaining the best of the old terminal in a new way.

 

Are there alternatives in the terminal situation?
This decision is entirely driven by need. It’s not a kitchen renovation – it’s a matter of survival in the long term. The airport needs to be insulated against escalating energy costs and capital risk in the long run. There were only two decisions: try and renovate this oversized and badly misconfigured terminal or start anew.

 

Was this a difficult decision?
It wasn’t taken lightly and engaged a lot of expert opinion. Decisions become a lot easier when one option is so clearly better than the other. The choice was between renovating a 60-year old oversized, badly misconfigured facility for $30 plus million or building a new facility at $40 million. Anyone who has entertained renovating an old home or property will understand that the cost benefit and risk analysis often lends itself to a fresh start.

 

What would you say were the major impediments to remodeling the current facility?
There are many, big and small. Risk of cost overrun, difficulty in making that footprint work for current demand, changes in building code, costs associated with managing an intrusive and significant renovation in a live airport, the fear that something unexpected might arise, difficulty in achieving energy efficiency. All those factors had to be carefully considered. A terminal renovation was the first thing the airport authority assessed as long as six years ago. It fast became apparent it was much too risky. We haven’t even been able to locate the as-built drawings for the building.

 

What about achieving energy efficiency?
I could go on at length about what has been done and tried over the last couple decades to recognize some gains in this building’s performance. Some of it was modestly beneficial, but at the end of the day it’s a tourniquet on a life-threatening wound. One of my staff likened investing in the modernization of our building systems like putting in a stent when a triple bypass is required.

 

Speaking of building, we see the airport is in the land lease business. Is that typical of airports?
We completed Phase I of our business park this fall and are excited about the prospects. Yes, most every airport is looking to marshal opportunities for non-aeronautical revenue through land development. The revenue generated through land leasing is sheltered from volatile aviation business cycles, so that’s important. The airport has a strategically located, high visibility tract of land, maybe the best location in a $2.5 billion regional retail sales market.

 

And you grew up in Gander?
We lived in Gambo briefly when I was born, but I’ve been in Gander most my life save for attending university in Halifax and a few years working in other parts of the province and country. What makes this position so interesting is that it’s in my hometown, so I feel quite a sense of ownership of this airport. I also carry the burden of the community’s expectation that the airport is run in a responsible manner and is commercially sustainable. We all feel that weight of expectation here at the airport.

How do you feel about living in Gander?
Gander’s been really good to me. I enjoyed it growing up, I enjoyed it after university and I enjoy it today as I raise a family. Gander is small enough that you know a lot of people, but big enough you don’t know everyone. It’s close enough to the big city and far enough from the big city, if you get my drift. It mightn’t have everything, but it has most everything I need. If you ever need a temporary change of scenery, there’s an airport in your backyard. Shameless plug there.

 

Most everything you need. Like what?
Living in Gander you have this enormous backyard to explore. Within an hour you have 72 great holes of golf, trails for eternity whether you like hiking or snowmobiling, a half dozen world class beaches. I live five minutes from Cobb’s Pond Rotary Park, which is a great gathering place for all ages. Gander is good living, especially if you enjoy the outdoors. If you are the kind of person who can find joy in the small details, you’ll enjoy Gander. I am not one of those people that need an endless list of entertainment options provided for my convenience. I am more than capable of making my own fun. So long as you have good friends and family around you, it doesn’t matter where you live.

 

Do you golf the Gander course?
I’m not a great golfer and I don’t golf frequently. I’m not certain people realize how blessed we are that a municipality of this size has a course that good.

 

Do you have a favorite hole?
I’d say 16. Long dogleg, elevated green that’s a disaster if you overshoot it, which I always seem to. What’s great is the elevated view of the lake and Mount Peyton as a backdrop. I don’t think I’ve ever parred that hole. I won’t be confused with Rory McIlroy by any stretch.

 

Why bother with the aggravation?
When you first set foot on a golf course it seems silly and impossible. If you stay with it, you’ll get to the point that you’ll hit a decent shot. That makes you quickly forget the other 102 shots on the day. It’s not about the golf. Golf is just the excuse. For me, any opportunity to be outdoors with friends for a few hours is well worth it. The guy who spends four hours waist deep in Sunshine Pool without rising a salmon will tell you the same thing.

 

What other sports are you involved with?
I play floor hockey a few nights a week. I do some cross country skiing in the winter. That’s another great thing about Gander – fantastic skiing facility. The volunteers at the ski club are to be lauded for what they’ve achieved.

 

So the big question: Leafs or Habs?
I’m a long suffering Leafs fan. It’s hereditary. The key genetic traits are perpetual disappointment and an eternal sense of hope.

 

What else do you do in your spare time?
My wife and I have two kids. Seth is three and Jenna is five. Spare time is in short supply and what spare time we do have is spent with them. So there’s hanging out with them and getting them to their activities and day trips to the beach or the park.

 

Speaking of children’s delights, you must be excited about Sunwing’s addition of Orlando service this winter.
Of course. Florida travel accounts for almost 50% of total US travel from Gander. There are 10 times as many Newfoundlanders who go to Florida than the entirety of the Caribbean and Latin America combined. People are very enthused about it – snowbirds, sun lovers, Mouseketeers. Very pleased that Sunwing stepped up to offer service. With Orlando, Cuba and the Dominican Republic all out of Gander, vacationers have great choices for a winter escape.

 

Do you have a Disney tip to share with travelers?
Oh, I’m not the one to ask. My wife Jackie and my sister put a lot of effort into planning the last Disney vacation. It was like George Clooney and Brad Pitt planning the casino heist in Ocean’s Eleven. They had every detail and nuance covered and our families were pretty appreciative of all that work. If my brother-in-law and I had been left to plan it we’d probably still be stranded with the alligators in the Everglades somewhere. If I had to offer a tip, it would be that there are Disney attractions that mightn’t be popular or state-of-the-art, but they get you out of the sun and into an air conditioned auditorium for a little reprieve. We were there on July 4 in blazing heat so the Tiki Room thing was fine by me. There’s a similar show with animatronic bears blowing into moonshine bottles out in Frontierland, but I can’t remember what it’s called.

 

Passenger traffic seems to be growing at Gander.
It is. Passenger performance has doubled over the last decade and what’s encouraging is that there is still significant room to grow. That may plateau in the short term, but looking ahead we are forecasting sustained growth.

 

I guess this is important because the international traffic has waned and lost importance?
I bristle at the suggestion Gander’s international traffic has lost importance. It remains critically important to the airport and the partners here at YQX who service international aviation. A significant amount of our revenue is still derived from international traffic. Don’t tell people at the airport whose primary job is to support international aviation that it’s not important. It’s of paramount importance.

 

The slowing of international traffic is what gets pointed to when people talk about Gander’s challenges.
Of course. I’m not contesting that the international traffic at Gander is not what it was. Everyone who knows the airport or aviation knows the difference. I’ve seen significant change even in my 13 years here at the airport. We had 1.5 million international passengers transit our airport in 1991 and this year we’ll have somewhere around 50,000.

 

What happened?
Some people have a hard time reconciling the dramatic changes in aviation technology. At its simplest, there are vastly fewer aircraft flying the North Atlantic that require a stop for fuel. Look at it this way: if you are leaving Gander for Corner Brook in a vintage Cadillac, you’ll probably need to stop on the way for gas. If you are in 2014 Honda Accord, you won’t need to. There are far more Accords than Cadillacs in today’s aviation industry – you can’t operate older aircraft economically and profitably any more. Look at the 777 as a modern standard bearer. It has an unrefueled range that allows it to fly from Dubai to New York. They won’t be stopping for fuel if they can avoid it. Unless an aircraft is tankering for fuel or has a commercial motive to stop here, they’ll try not to. Every airport that caters to fuel stop traffic on either ocean has seen the same downward trend, whether it’s Anchorage or the Azores or Iceland or Shannon, Ireland.

 

When did this happen?
The first commercial flight at Gander was in 1945. As early as the mid 50s, Gander’s customers were trying to overfly us. You may have seen the old advertisement touting non-stop service from New York to Europe with the promise of “No Goose, No Gander”. That market has been in decline since the beginning. In the wake of 9-11, the industry went through a major collapse and the result was that the airlines that survived the downturn could get new, longer range aircraft at reduced prices as the manufacturers had inventory to move. So the renewal and modernization of most airline fleets happened a little faster than most had forecast.

 

So will this market continue to contribute to Gander?
There are not a lot of cargo airlines and passenger airlines to pursue and the competition for fewer tails is a lot more intense than it was when just Gander and Shannon were the de facto tech stop airports. We need to recognize the operating environment we work in. I am not in the business of chasing rainbows; we focus where we have a reasonable probability of success. No one is waiting for some kind of renaissance in international fuel stops at Gander. What we are doing is working to retain what we have and see if there are opportunities to grow. Again, there are niches of international aviation that will continue to patronize Gander in the decades to come. As long as there is a Gander Airport, it will accommodate international aviation.

 

So Gander Airport remains relevant?
Gander is much like a fax machine. Certainly not as widely used as it was years ago but there are customer segments entirely dependent on it. It is still crucially important and strategic to many in ways that aren’t always reflected in the traffic we actually receive.

 

At what point does history begin to drag on you?
Gander’s history has given us everything – the brand and name recognition, a winning track record and an expertise in aviation cultivated over 75 years and passed among successive generations. Our history is to be celebrated. What discourages me personally is this notion that because Gander today is different than it was 30 or 40 years ago it is somehow redundant or a failure. Let’s not allow our history to be an anchor dragging behind us. The past has passed. Let’s all in live in the present and focus on the future.

 

People often bemoan the fact “the magic at Gander Airport is gone”.
I don’t have a comparative perspective of the magic of the 80s versus the reality of today. People romanticize the past, that’s the way it is. Every industry does. Fishers and loggers probably bemoan the good old days. All I can tell you is that we have a fully functioning international airport connecting our region to the world and supporting 1,200 jobs. I’ll leave the magic to Penn and Teller.

 

Gander and survival seem to be interconnected themes.
Critics were fast to write off Gander’s chances and I think many were only too happy to usher it to the annals of history. We’ll post our tenth straight year of profit this year and I couldn’t be more encouraged by our prospects. Everyone wants to write Gander’s eulogy, but we are writing its next chapter. Yesterday and yesteryear don’t interest me near as much as today, because today gives us an opportunity to create the future we want for this airport.

 

But people do idealize Gander in its heyday.
Of course. I do, too. People have fond memories of it and it played an important role in the Gander Airport of today. Nostalgia is a potent emotion – it shows the past hewn on the rough edges. I drove past the home I grew up on Wood Crescent the other day and it was somehow disappointing that the house was not exactly the same as the house I grew up in 30 years ago. Newfoundlanders in general are extremely nostalgic people. I think our rich history is fantastic, but I’ll admit I’m past it when it comes to comparisons of Gander today and the supposed Golden Age of Gander. I get calls every month from reporters wanting to wheel out that tired old Gander then-and-now story. What they really want to do is write Gander’s obituary. Sorry, I’m not attending that funeral.

 

Do you have any favorite Gander Airport stories or memories?
The best Gander Airport stories just can’t be repeated publicly. They aren’t the big events, the ones that make the paper, but those small moments and interactions. There are so many funny stories from the airfield. Some of the stuff that went on here you’d split a rib laughing. Gander has always had its share of characters working here. It’s the characters that make the story.

 

What is the aviation industry like today? Seems the romance of flight is long gone.
Aviation continues to attract investment and dreamers against all odds, but the reality is that margins in the industry are very tight. Everyone is being pushed to be cost competitive. Thankfully, there is evidence the airlines have turned a corner. That bodes well for airports, consumers and the economy in general. It’s still a special industry.

 

Do you still enjoy the travel part of the job?
I don’t relish business trips but the fact remains I can’t meet our customers and engage the industry at my office alone. So travel is part of the job and an important one. I won’t complain because there are plenty of men and women commuting to work regularly that put a lot harder shift in then I do, travel-wise. I was speaking with a local businessperson yesterday and his job has taken him to 75 countries over the last decade. Incredible.

 

Some people think travel is a great perk, though.
You will never be able to convince people whose jobs don’t require travel that it’s not fun. But you can find some joy in business travel. It can take you to places you’d never otherwise see. It’s just that after a while it all runs together in this smear of airports, hotels, cities and conferences.

 

Do you have a bucket list for travel?
Of course. There are plenty of places I’d like to see on vacation. Eastern Europe, parts of Scandinavia, Vietnam, Australia and New Zealand. It’s a big world out there. I’d also like to one day do a beach holiday in the South Pacific. Cook Islands, Fiji, Tahiti, somewhere like that.

 

What’s your travel tip?
A friend of mine recommends always eating where the locals eat. So if you are staying at a hotel, don’t ask the concierge, ‘where should I go to eat?’ but, “where do you eat?” You can uncover some gems this way. I remember having a steak at a restaurant right next to a slaughterhouse in rural Missouri. A guy at the gas station recommended it. My other tip is to learn how to pack efficiently. That’s a big one.

 

Window or Aisle?
Prefer the window but it doesn’t matter. I’m incapable of sleeping on airplanes. You’d have to drop an anvil on my head to get me to sleep on an airplane.

 

What don’t you travel without?
I guess the phone is the big thing. I try and bring a fair amount of printed material for the plane. Industry magazines, reports, a book. You don’t have to power those things down on descent.

 

What life lessons are you trying to teach your children?
Seems like most lessons these days revolve around safety… not swinging off the ceiling fan and explaining why they can’t use power tools. I guess I would say what every parent would: that they be respectful of others. We are not trying to shape our kids in our mould … they can be their own people, but they need to be respectful of others. The biggest problem with the world today is there are 7 Billion people in it and way too many individuals act like they are the only ones in it.

 

What is your biggest regret?
I don’t spend too much time looking back in the rearview mirror. I probably would have married my wife a lot earlier had I the time back. We spent too long waiting for things that didn’t really matter to be perfectly aligned before tying the knot. My biggest regret of late is trading in my Blackberry.

 

You are not the only one who gave up Blackberry.
I don’t care what anyone says, nobody can type on a Smartphone. Blackberry might not have had all the functionality, but it did the job. Like they say: a tool, not a toy. I feel somehow unpatriotic not using a Blackberry.

 

What marketing lessons would you share?
The most important thing is don’t pitch. There is nothing worse than a salesperson delivering a canned, robotic pitch on their product. If you want to sell a product, listen first. Get an understanding of a person’s needs and challenges. Assess whether what you offer provides a solution or advantage. That’s how a lead becomes a customer. The other truism is to put as much work into retaining a customer as you do into getting their business. It’s an enormous mistake to start looking over your current customer’s shoulder to see who else might be out there. People do business with people. It’s still about building strong, trusting relationships.

 

How does this play out in your job?
I’ll take the example of trying to get an airline to add service to your market. First you have to consider that airline’s strategic orientation, because they are all different. Some are trying to strengthen hubs. Others want to do more point-to-point flying. Some cater to leisure travelers, some to the briefcase set. Some make most of their money through ancillary revenues and fees. You can’t have a meaningful conversation with an airline until you have worked through those prerequisites. You can’t give people what they want until you know what they need.

 

How does that airline courting business work?
Some people think it’s about banging your fist on a table and demanding service or making vague promises. It’s nothing like that. You need to provide a sound business case that is profitable for the airline. These are million dollar decisions and are given thorough review and analysis by the most important and unheralded people in the airline business – the network planners. Airlines are in the business of making money for their owners or shareholders. Even with a great business case, there’s no guarantee of service. Airlines make the decision on where they fly, not airports. They key for the airport is to provide the timely, accurate and relevant information to influence that decision. The sales cycles are very long, too. When you see a ribbon cutting for a new flight on the news, there’s years of work and a lot of meetings that went into getting to that moment. You need a persistent disposition in this line of business.

 

Why do you say there’s no guarantee if there’s a good business case?
It’s not about whether an airline could be profitable, let’s say, flying from Gander to Montreal. It’s about whether they could make more money flying from Gander to Montreal than they would from Regina to Calgary. Airlines only have so many aircraft. Sometimes they want to fly a route but there’s a pilot shortage, or constraints in the network or they don’t have the appropriately-sized aircraft to match to that city pairing or the timing is wrong or they need to add frequency elsewhere for competitive reasons.

 

We know the airline industry is competitive, but are airports competitive with each other?
We are all trying to push our way through a crowded marketplace to tell our story and generate new business for our airports. As I mentioned, there are only so many airlines and aircraft to go around, so of course competition is a factor. I will say, though, that the airport community is very fraternal and supportive of each other. We have good working relationships with many airports, especially when it comes to matters of operations, security and policy.

 

What is Gander Airport’s strategic advantage?
Gander has a vast airport infrastructure. It’s a dynamic and dependable operation. It would take a lot of money, but Gander could be easily imitated. You could recreate Gander Airport if you had the will and the pocketbook. What is not easily imitated is the people who work here. Gander has fostered a great service culture over its 75 years and the airport is full of good people who are great at their jobs. I’ve spoken to thousands of pilots, flight planners and aviation professionals over my career and they all point to Gander’s warm brand of service and hospitality.

 

But it’s an airport. It can’t be all joy in Mudville.
Of course not. Airports bring together a wide array of service providers and interests each of whom has a distinct job. I reflect on what the airport does and how that pertains to the customer experience. Are the runways and taxiways safe, clear and in good repair? Is the parking lot accessible? These are areas under which the airport has direct control. Then there are many things over which the airport has limited influence but that are incredibly important – the tower, pre-board security, the fuelers, the airlines. The thing is that people don’t differentiate. Take the example of a flight crew overnighting in Gander. If the taxi was late, if the hotel rooms weren’t ready, if someone was rude or indifferent to them at the airport, if there was a delay in fuel or handling or the catering order is mixed up – it’s a Gander problem. Doesn’t matter who is responsible, it’s a Gander problem. There’s a saying they use at Disney’s training institute: it might not be our fault, but it’s our problem. It is crucial that all of us with a stake in this continue to deliver exemplary service, from wheels down to wheels up.

 

What is the experience you hope people have at Gander Airport?
Airports are strange, they are places  people come to leave. We want the customer experience to be seamless and efficient. We’d like to provide great beginnings and endings to everyone’s trip.

 

What role does your staff play in the bigger scheme of things?
The staff does the most important work at the airport. We are very lucky to have a capable, experienced team. They embrace challenge and deliver, time and again.

 

Employee retention is a big thing currently. Skilled tradespeople have a lot of choice in where to work.
Of course. It goes without saying that staff need to be supported and treated properly. You hear of a business that treats its staff poorly and you immediately think, if this is how they treat their staff, how must they treat their customers?

 

What’s your view of an engaged employee?
It just means that a person will offer extra discretionary effort to a job solely because they feel an attachment to their work. I think good workers feel something about their job. A colleague said something one time that really resonated with me. He said, “the difference between a good worker and a great worker is that a great workers cares very deeply about what they do”. In other words, they feel it.

 

What’s the best quality to look for in a worker?
Not so much a worker, but a person in general. Integrity. It’s a word so often overused with so little understanding. Integrity means doing the right thing, even when no one is watching.

 

What are the biggest challenges going forward?
The price of oil is plummeting through the floor. We are all concerned by economic headwinds driven by falling prices. Low fuel prices are generally good news for airlines – 30 plus per cent of their cost are around fuel – but the impact of these challenges will be widely felt. The sweet spot for airlines to operate comfortably and oil and gas development to proceed is around $100/barrel – we are well off that pace now. Aviation is the ultimate barometer for the economy – when the economy sags, we feel its weight. Let’s face it – we are all a little overextended on oil and that dependency is going to sting.

 

If you had to 30 second to pitch Gander Airport to a customer in an elevator, what would you say?
Firstly, that it’s their airport, operated by the community for the benefit of the region. I’d also say what I’ve been saying for eternity: if it meets your travel plans and budget, fly Gander. There is no greater expression of support for your local airport than to fly from it.

 

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