Cleared for landing
High-flying airport director sets down in Jackson Hole.
Jackson Hole, Wyoming – The Jackson Hole economy rises and falls in close correlation with deplanement numbers at the airport. Especially during winter, when few dare to brave state and county roads, every head walking down the airstairs of an inbound flight to the Jackson Hole Airport has a dollar value accredited to it.
Accessibility to the valley via air travel is as much a boon to the boom we enjoy as a ski resort, wildlife viewing or the Western lifestyle. In fact, it comes first. If the tourist is the lifeblood of our economy, the airport is the heart.
Incoming director Jim Elwood soon will take the reins of the busiest airport in the state. He brings 13 years of experience at Aspen/Pitkin County Airport, where he faced and solved many of the challenges he will encounter in his new role – a job, by the way, Elwood says he has wanted for years.
We chatted with the new man on the top of the totem pole for an hour last week. He talked about what it’s been like so far trading management of a one-runway airstrip (15/33) for another (1/19). Elwood is admittedly still getting settled in, so board member John Eastman, who also dropped by The Planet office, answered some of our questions.
Planet Jackson Hole: Jim, happy to be here? John, did you get your man?
John Eastman: We went through a fairly long and thorough vetting process with five candidates. We really focused on bringing the community into the process. Of the five, three really stood out and of those, Jim was our unanimous choice.
He understands the importance of community collaboration, the sensitivity and importance of conservation issues, and the customer base: a tourist, hospitality-centered economy. From a professional standpoint, he has the training and experience with high-altitude operations at airports. We really hit a home run for the community.
Jim Elwood: It’s terrific to be back in Wyoming. [Elwood’s first job in the aviation industry was at the Cheyenne Regional Airport]. And I would just like to say we are going to be accessible and we are going to be transparent. We understand the community has interest in the airport and we look forward to providing timely information. Sometimes that will be easy and sometimes it will be tough news.
PJH: Coming from Aspen/Pitkin to here, there are so many similarities. Annual enplanement and deplanement numbers are comparable (296,369 and 296,953 at JH Airport; 211,749 and 209,252 at Aspen) and both are Rocky Mountain resort communities. What can you transfer from there and what will be unique to your new job?
Jim: I think there is a lot of similarity between the two airports and the communities. There is a very powerful sense of brand in both communities. They are different brands but they are very much a key ingredient in each community. The biggest common thread is we all live here, work here, and want to be here because of the incredible beauty in our backdrop. We want to have visitors come here to see our assets. We depend on it. So we need to protect that.
On an airport basis, I think the work that’s already been done here is work we’ve been doing in Aspen; which is create better approach and departure procedures that are not only environmentally sensitive but also have improvements for the air carriers and reduced noise and other impacts on the ground for residents around the airport.
Jackson is ahead of Aspen in terms of airport development. Its terminal is about to be done here and we will open the baggage claim in December. My job is to keep this momentum going.
The other really common thread is the community cares a lot about its airport and they are engaged and they want to understand it. They want to know what’s up.
Then you add the complexity that is here and not in Aspen, with an airport that is inside a national park, and the park is a landlord. If you ever want to think about doing something casually you are not going to do it casually because that relationship is everything and you’ve got to make sure that your partners are with you every step of the way.
PJH: At least the lease extension (20 years through 2053) is done. So is that the greatest challenge before you, getting up to speed on Park Service matters?
Jim: These folks did a great job of pushing that lease forward and getting that done. You know, the answer is absolutely yes. I come with a decent amount of skills and a lot of experience over time but there’s a couple of places here that are going to need attention for me to get up to speed on and that’s the Park Service relationship. That’s an ingredient that I think is really cool where someone else is making sure you are doing things to a standard that is very, very high and you better have your thought process together and you better make sure you have great communication skills and you are able to both understand their passion about their things that they are required by federal law to be passionate about, and we as an airport have safety and other things we are passionate about.
How do you find that common ground and way to work together so everyone comes away from the table and says, “Smart, we did that right?” Those kind of success stories are pretty cool.
The other piece I’m going to need some time with is, overall, I’m just going to spend a lot of time listening. I will be trying to find out how the airport is viewed by the community and trying to see us in their eyes and to improve. I’m going to spend a good part of the next several months just listening to people.
The other piece I need to fill in some blanks on will be security. It’s a very unique circumstance here because the airport actually does the screening.
PJH: Yes, what exactly is the relationship with the federal government regarding screening at the airport? We do not use TSA screeners, correct?
Jim: It’s a contract with the federal government to provide security, and what I do know about that program today is we do all the same training, record keeping, and so on, just as if it was a Transportation Security Association employee doing that task. Except they’re airport staff. I met the representatives of the TSA today and they used a really good word: partnership. And they viewed that partnership in a very good light.
PJH: Let’s get right to the $64,000 question. You expanded your runway in Aspen to 8,006 feet in 2011. We’ve been talking about an expansion here because the JH Airport runway is one of the shortest in the country at 6,300 feet. Federal red tape is always a reality. How high on your list of priorities is a lengthening of the runway?
Jim: The fact is runway extension is not on anybody’s agenda. We did the overrun [a 150-foot paved section], which really did make a safety enhancement. Everything I know about this subject – and I know I’m new here – is that runway extension is not part of the game plan. Did I miss that one, John?
PJH: Private flights constitute a large percentage of air traffic at JH Airport. Aspen is probably similar. What specific concerns does that bring to a director?
Jim: Corporate aviation and some of those private airplanes we’re seeing now represent a trend line, nationally, and it’s been true the past 10 or plus years. And the physical size of the airplanes is growing. There was a time when I started in this business where a Lear jet or a small private jet [was smaller and less capable]. We can both think back and see photos of Frank Sinatra standing in front of a Lear jet and we all went “Wow.” Now, the capability of those airplanes is to be able to go intercontinental – nonstop Jackson to Paris. That just wasn’t thought about too many years ago.
And the physical wingspan and length has been growing. And while the number of airplanes might not move much over time, because they are bigger airplanes they take up so much more room on the ramp and in the airport, so it’s harder to manage that larger aircraft.
I’ll spend some time with the folks at Jackson Hole Aviation and get an understanding of how that plays. I haven’t compared numbers but I think we are very comparable in terms of activity to the Aspen Airport.
PJH: Fuel costs are high here. Pilots bitch sometimes. Is that just the nature of the beast?
Jim: It’s always a balancing act because the reality is, in this community as well as others like it, like Aspen, cost of operation is higher than it is at some other locations. And sometimes that’s reflected in the price of a product whether it’s a loaf of bread or a gallon of jet fuel. There are some direct correlations to the cost of doing business in a resort market.
I think the airport has a role in that in trying to help moderate and balance the costs, overall. I will spend some time in the next couple of months and give you something stronger on that, but at the moment it’s trying to find the balance between free enterprise doing what free enterprise does, and being a regulatory organization like the airport is in some environments.
PJH: Any plan to expand or reduce hours of operation? I know our air traffic control tower is not manned late at night and pilots have to turn on the runway lights themselves. Is this fairly standard?
Jim: We haven’t dug into whether it makes sense to try and adjust air traffic control hours. We have a similar circumstance in Aspen where the tower isn’t open necessarily the entire time all flights are taking place. I know that sounds somewhat quirky to people who are not pilots but it’s actually very common across the air traffic spectrum, and pilots know to expect it. They are trained to do the things they need to do to make sure things work safely and the way they are supposed to.
Pilots know just what to do. In our case, they are talking to Salt Lake Center right down to almost the ground, anyway. So in terms of real change or making a real difference to the people in the cockpit or the back of the airplane, it’s all good and it works.
PJH: One of the nice things about JH Airport, aside from the stunning scenery, is its relatively small size. It’s usually easy and fast to get in and out. There are times of congestion, however, when it seems a bunch of flights are coming in or going out all at once. Can you control scheduling or is that all within the carriers’ purview?
Jim: It’s really a struggle because you know we are called a spoke on the end of an air transportation system. You have to go back to the hubs that airplanes are flying to and from to understand how they do that. You go to Salt Lake, Chicago or Denver and you can be there an hour and not hardly see another person and then all of the sudden you can’t walk through the corridors. That’s called that hub and spoke system.
The end result for us is we end up with a lot of compaction of flights in a short window of time that puts a lot of stress on the organization, the building, the ramp and the security system. Everyone really has to hustle to stay with that. We have the same problem in Aspen. Can we do something about it? Not a lot. We can try to ask for tweaking of flight schedules of 10 minutes or so here or there.
As airport directors and boards, we get feedback from the community about congestion and [we have to admit] it IS a mess out there at times.
PJH: Most people’s impression of air travel is not a favorable one. There’s a lot to complain about from baggage costs to delays and cancellations. At the airport, you have a chance to create a positive experience for travelers on their way here or way out. [Incidentally, Yelp reviews on JH Airport average 4 out of 5 stars. Aspen rates 3.5 stars.] The work to expand and enhance the terminal has been fairly well received – other than some lost artwork, someone falling in a hole and someone driving through the front window in a rage.
John: I’ll have to fill you in on some of that, Jim.
Jim: I guess. But what a great investment the terminal was. And it’s getting better. I’ve already been doing some test samples. I would be smart to defer to John because he’s been hearing from the community. I think people are anxious to get the baggage claim system up and running, and have the entire airport 100 percent functional.
The commitment that I will offer to the community is we will always be looking for opportunities to improve the environment here and the experiences people have at the airport. In the end, air travel has become stressful. Our job is to figure out any way we can to let people take that tension down and have the experience be as pleasant as it can be.
There is also a technology shift that’s happening in the industry across the board. We’re seeing things like the electronic check-in. Not too many years ago we printed our boarding passes at home. Now we can do them on our smartphone. The next trend is going to be self-boarding. There won’t necessarily be a ticketing agent at the gate taking your boarding passes.
John: I thought you were going to say we would be flying the planes ourselves.
Jim: Well, who knows? I think people who travel a lot like being able to help themselves. So I think we will see that evolution. What that’s doing is changing the space utilization of an airport around, and Jackson is one of the first airports to take advantage of that. Ten years ago, if that terminal was just built, you would have had probably twice the square footage in ticketing. Now with kiosks and other things, we were able to switch that area to post security. Because that’s where people immediately go.
If you are like me when you travel, I get to the airport and check the board or my phone app to see if the flight is going to be on time, and where is it coming from? As soon as you get through security you kind of take a deep breath and say, “OK, now I can relax and get a cup of coffee.” So by having Jedediah’s out there and the footprint we’ve built with that waiting area with a fireplace and some comfy seating, it’s really …
John: I think the hold room is very nice.
Jim: Exactly, and the view is, well, what are you going to do to improve on that view?
PJH: Safety is perhaps your biggest concern. Who makes the call to scrub a flight or landing due to weather? Also, how can you avoid TSA-style nightmares with invasive pat-downs and such but still guarantee everyone who boards a plane in Jackson will get where they’re going safely?
Jim: The safety record in the aviation world, if you look at the trend line over the decades, safety of air travel has improved almost year after year ever since Orville and Wilbur Wright started flying. And the reason for that is the intense dedication to always making sure safety is a part of every decision that we make. And that will be true in my tenure, and I’m confident it was true in Ray’s tenure as well. Everything we do will be focused on improving that mark.
In terms of scrubbing flights, we don’t normally make a lot of those decisions. The only time we impact an airline is if the airfield is unsafe for travel and there is defined criteria that we have in the industry that outlines that. Mostly it’s when the pavement conditions just aren’t suitable for aircraft operations – too slippery, damaged, or whatever. Our job in the eyes of the FAA is to make sure the facilities are safe for aircraft operations.
The airlines will make decisions about scrubbing flights based on their operating protocols. Now, as airport directors, we try to hold the airlines’ feet to the fire to make sure that they fly the flights that they can fly safely. We all hear those rumors over time, “Well, there wasn’t enough seats sold so they scrubbed the flight.” Those are places where we will bend the ear of the airlines.
PJH: You had a crash in January at Aspen. We’ve had our share here. What’s your game plan after a mishap?
Jim: In terms of communications, I think a lot has changed in how the public gets information and the timeliness of that information. I can tell you not too many years ago we had about 30 minutes, we figured, from the time an incident might happen at the airport to the time we could expect you to call us, Jake. With Twitter and every person with a smartphone becoming a reporter, we found out in January [that 30 minute window] has become a matter of milliseconds.
So how do we use social media and Tweets and other things to get information to the traveling public and interested parties? We as an industry are really wrestling with how to do that and how to be fast enough and accurate enough to share information that matters.
I’ve been in this business a very long time and you are always wanting to make sure you have your facts straight, and only share the facts, and you have every piece of the puzzle, and you know what you are sharing with the public is absolutely on target to the extent you can. Now, those folks with smartphones are sharing with the world and there is no accountability, no accuracy.
PJH: In a way it can work to a newspaper’s advantage. If you contact us first and quickly, we can get the real story out there before it’s become Facebook rumor and speculation.
Jim: I’d really like to establish that. You’re accountable. You have readers that expect you to get it right. We want to get it right. But I think the solution for us in the airport management business is, well, we are trying to catch up.
I mean this Asiana crash in San Francisco. People were Tweeting as they were sliding down the slide. They were not even interested in saving their lives. They were more interested in SAYING they were saving their lives. I don’t know quite what to do with that.
PJH: Air travel is one thing, what about ground transportation to and from the airport? We have pricey taxi service and limited success with buses.
Jim: I’ve been around conversations that have talked about how successful the bus service has been here and how can we find ways to connect other parts of the community to the airport.
John: There is actually a great model in Aspen. The bus service is outstanding. It takes you from the airport, within yards of the terminal, right into the town.
PJH: This isn’t probably a question for you, Jim, but what happened with the parking situation? The rentals are now all down where locals used to like to park.
John: We did switch the public and rental car parking. The rationale behind that was to provide a better experience for the tourist when they come, and to have their car when they walk out of the terminal. I heard some concerns from the public about it: “Gee, we have to walk all the way down here now.” But we did add a short-term aisle where if you are coming just to drop people off you have a two-hour limit place to park. I think once the construction is finished the flow of pedestrian traffic from the parking space is going to be a lot easier.
PJH: So, Jim, does your change of jobs require you to be dealing with different FAA people or are they the same?
Jim: The cool piece of this move is the FAA individuals that are most front and center for us, those relationships stay the same. John Bauer [manager of airports in the FAA’s Denver district office] in Denver and Sarah Dalton [Seattle Airports District Office] in Seattle – they’re the same people. Really good people, by the way.
PJH: I know you were making $130,402 at Aspen. What will be your starting salary here?
Jim: I will be paid $170,000 a year.