Beginning Jan. 9, 2017, Jim Gill will take over as CEO of the growing Gerald R. Ford International Airport in Grand Rapids. Having previously worked as the COO and CFO of the Allegheny County Airport Authority in Pittsburgh, Gill will take over an airport going through major renovations and adding flights amid record passenger counts. Gill spoke with MiBiz about his hopes to engage a changing airline industry in continuing the success the Ford airport has enjoyed in recent years.
With the airport already experiencing positive momentum, where can you come in and make an impact?
I think in cooperation with a terrific board and a terrific community, being able to continue the facility improvements — like the Gateway Transformation project right now — and seeing it through to completion. And there are additional opportunities to expand customer service and really help to prepare the airport for the future of air service.
What does that mean?
The way the airlines do business continues to change. There’s a bigger focus on that and we want to facilitate that future growth. When it comes to economic development, the airport plays an integral part in the community’s economic development. You need the services to support the business community and the public needs to support the service to continue to grow. I also think there’s an opportunity to look … at new flights, new destinations. Whether it’s increased frequency, increased fleet size. We’ll look at that data and work with the community to find out what their needs are, both business and leisure.
What else can you see playing out at the airport in terms of economic development?
The airport sits on a number of properties that are very attractive. They’re close to the airport and support the business community in the region, so being able to market the properties for their highest and best use is important. In addition to helping the economics in the region, it helps bring additional non-airline revenue, which helps sustain the operation.
I know it’s early, but what might those properties look like in the future?
The airport is going through a master plan. That master plan will also delineate and make recommendations on airport assets and properties. So we’ll take a look at that and we want to continue to complement the operations of the airport as well. Having the West Michigan Aviation Academy on the property is a wonderful complementary use and an asset to the airport. We’d look at all aspects of that and if there’s an opportunity to expand the aviation or aeronautical use of the property, that certainly would be a priority.
You’re taking this job having been COO and CFO of the Allegheny Airport Authority near Pittsburgh. Why move to a smaller market?
The size of the airport isn’t always reflective of the quality. It’s a great airport with a great history. It’s a well-run operation. The transference from a county operation to an authority to focus on that aviation aspect is really attractive. During my time in Pittsburgh, I worked on the transition from a county department to an authority. I hope to bring some of the education and experience I’ve had (on) how to maximize the potential of the airport.
Given your experience in Pittsburgh, why is it important for airports to switch to the authority model?
As you move into the future, it allows the authority to specifically focus on the assets of the airport and the opportunities versus sometimes being mixed in with other environmental issues … that are outside the focus. It’s a specific, specialized focus. You know, Birgit Klohs, the CEO of The Right Place Inc., sits on the board. That business community is so important in evaluating the future air service opportunities. Now you have your finger on the pulse of the business community by having Birgit on there. You have business, community leaders. And their focus is on what can we do to continue to improve the airport. There’s nothing negative in the past, but it prepares the airport for the future to stand alone.
You previously mentioned the changing focus of the airline industry. How will that affect Grand Rapids?
As it relates to preparing for the future of air service, number one is having relationships with the airlines. I would hope the airlines I’ve done business with would say I’ve been a good partner — understanding their needs, understanding what they’re looking for, whether that relates to facilities, technology, the function and operations of the airport. Plus, a lot of the future of how airlines operate is very technologically focused.
What kinds of changes do you see coming as far as technology?
You’re seeing the onset of self-tagging. Passengers come up, print their boarding pass, put their tag on their bag and check in. It’s really engaging airlines, developing those communicative relationships. But it’s also preparing for the changes down the road. We want to be on the leading edge of being able to make the airlines successful: making wise, intelligent investments in facilities and technology that help facilitate that growth.
What concerns do you have as you look to start the job next month?
It’s a great operation with a great team and staff, as well as a great community of supporters. Everyone is very engaged. The only thing that keeps me up at night is continuing to meet the expectations of the community, both the public and the business community — ensuring we continue to do the great things that have happened in the past, (and) making sure we continue to move in the right direction and live up to the expectations.