Richard Howell, director of the Columbus Airport, talks to reporter Alva James-Johnson for the Sunday Interview.
Richard Howell moved to Columbus in 2013 to turn around the struggling Columbus Airport.
Today, Howell, a licensed pilot, oversees a $4.6 million budget and 42 full- and part-time employees.
He sat down with reporter Alva James-Johnson and talked about his background, aviation career and the airport's current state of affairs.
Here are excerpts from the interview, with the content and order of the questions edited slightly for length and clarity.
Tell me about your background.
I grew up in California, and I stayed there until I was about 18 years old. I relocated to West Virginia where my father was living, and I lived there and went to school. So, actually, I started going to school at Marshall University for about four years. And then I decided to go into the Air Force in 1980. ... I was a security policeman for a year, and I was actually the one guarding the airplanes. ... I did 12 1/2 years in the Air Force, and when I got out, I was an E-7 master sergeant. ... I was responsible for about seven U.S. Air Force (airfields), both in the United States and overseas.
What happened after the Air Force?
Most of the time they tell you, "It's not what you know, it's who you know." And by being in Colorado Springs, the Air Force was actually a tenant of the Colorado Springs Airport. So working in the flight line and stuff, I got to know the city airport manager and director of operations and things like that. ... When it's all said and done, I got my first check from the city of Colorado Springs four days after I got my last check from the United States Air Force.
I was there for six years as an operations agent, and then I decided I wanted to move on to do some other stuff. So I got the job in Albany as their airport director there. ... When Sept. 11 happened, of course, they shut everything down, and everybody had to be recertified before you could start commercial flights again. The (Atlantic Southeast Airlines) station manager at that time told me ... ours was the first airport in the ASA system to get recertified. They had 65 destinations at that point in time, so we're real proud of that.
How did you get back to California?
After that I just took the job as director of aviation in Waco. There I built a lot of stuff. I built a new fire station. I built two additions onto the terminal, planned up a runway extension, and things like that. By that time, some family issues were coming up, and it really (became) necessary that my sister or I be in California. She lives in Oregon.
The San Luis Obispo job came open, which was 90 miles from where I grew up in Santa Barbara, and so I took that job, and I was there for five years.
How is Columbus different from California? Besides the weather.
... The (Metropolitan Statistical Area) for Columbus is almost as big as the county was in California. But when it comes right down to it, I'd probably say that Columbus is so much more proactive about where they want to go, what they want to do, and the things they've done in the last 10 years with the whitewater and everything else that they've done to develop the community. And they're always talking about doing those types of things.
They talk about those things in California, too, but with the laws in California, things like that just make it so difficult to get work done. It's tough to do business in California. And all I'm really doing is running a business. It just happens to be an airport, but it really is a $4 million business. So it's really nice, and the (Federal Aviation Administration) in this part of the country is so easy to work with. And, of course, they contribute a lot to us every year. It's really kind of nice. I enjoy it here. It's been a lot of fun to be back in this area.
This airport has been a struggling airport, wouldn't you say?
... For the most part, Columbus (Airport) has had its ups and down. Of course when this building was built back in the '90s, I think, there were five carriers in the market then. They were planning on getting more, and of course, it didn't play out that way.
That all being said, they were able to retain the air service. When I was in Albany, there were two carriers in this market, US Airways and Delta's been here forever. American came into the market a couple of years before I got here; they left -- I got here in October of '13, they left in June of '13. Looking back ... it wasn't so much that Columbus was a bad market for American, it was just the competitive nature of the market.
... In June of '13 the American Airlines management, which was a bankruptcy management, was looking to the merger, which was going to take place in October, November. When they were looking at that, they rolled out their route map, and said. "OK, where are we strong? Where are we weak? Because we have to have strong systems so we can get federal approval for the merger." American did really, really well between here and Dallas. Actually, while they were here, Dallas became our No. 1 destination for passengers. But what was happening, Delta was cutting their fares going to like Los Angeles and Seattle and things like that. American was matching that going out of Dallas, so they really weren't making a lot of money for a passenger that was going from Columbus to, say, Seattle. ... That was a weakness, and it just became a business decision that they decided to go ahead and jump the market.
Right now, I think the airport has a lot to offer another carrier. The (Columbus Airport) Commission received a three quarters of a million dollar grant from the Federal Department of Transportation last year as a revenue guarantee. The problem we are running into right now has nothing to do with Columbus -- it has all to do with the pilot shortage that's going on out there in the market. There just aren't enough pilots to fly what the carriers want to fly, and I actually had that discussion with American about six weeks ago. They'd love to come here, but they just don't have the pilots.
What carriers do you have here currently? Is it just Delta?
Yeah, Delta's going four times a day to Atlanta.
What has business been like for Delta these days?
Business has been good. ... We're doing a rates and charges study. We're actually going to try to cut their rates a little bit. The rates we've been collecting have been to amortize the debt service on this building. We just paid this building off in November of '13. It was a $5 million dollar bond that the airport had to pay off. ... We're also looking at what we can do for the other side of the commercial service airport as well as the general aviation side. We're trying to improve services to our other tenants that store their airplanes here. We've got a project coming up next year to renovate runway 1331, which generally, for the most part, is a general aviation runway. The small planes use it because it's short. We're going to spend about $2.3 million dollars on that to get that renovated.
We're looking at other things we can do that have been kind of postponed over the years to bring things back. We've got money in the bank. The audit this year looked really good. The airport's not doing bad financially. ... We're not even struggling to keep air service. I've met with the Delta folks. They don't have any intentions of going anywhere. We're struggling to get more air service, but there's probably 250-260 airports out there in the United States that are struggling with the same thing we are.
With so many people driving themselves to Atlanta or using Groome Transportation, how is it that you are able to do so well financially?
People still like to fly, and people like the idea that they can walk in, that they can park their car, they can walk into this building, and they can go through the screening checkpoint, and they're in the system. They don't have to deal with whatever is going on at Atlanta or wherever else. And they get on the airplane, and if they time it just right, they can do that in a half hour. Now, it takes you a half hour to walk from the parking lot in Atlanta to get to the terminal if you're outlying, or catch the ferry, or catch the bus, or whatever it is, from the outlying lots. If you've done Groome, then you do better, but then you've got a 30 or 45 minute wait in line to get through the checkpoint. People go through the checkpoint here in 10, 15 minutes. Boom. You're on the airplane.
What percentage of the market would you say that you're capturing?
We're capturing 9 percent. ... The market generates about 3,200 passengers a day, and we see about 300 if we're lucky. And 91 percent of them are going to Atlanta. We did a study right after I got here in January '14 to capture that data.
You mentioned the $750,000 grant from last year, and that's to be used to try to recruit a new airline. Can you say specifically how those dollars are being used?
Right now they're not being used at all. ... We applied for the grant as a revenue guarantee for a new carrier. Specifically we are looking for a carrier to take us to Charlotte (N.C.) We feel that would be a good choice for us because we have a lot of traffic going to New York and (Washington) D.C., and so the money is waiting there to be used as a revenue guarantee to a carrier.
The cost to bring a 50-seat (regional jet) into this market is probably going to cost about $3 million dollars a year for the carrier to operate the flight. ... At some level whether it's a low factor level or whether it's a profitability level, the carrier can come back and say, "Hey, you know we're a little short, so we would like to take some of the cash?" So we would be able to give them the grant money in that regard so they would be able to make themselves whole, while they're developing the service. That would last for probably about a year.
Have there been other carriers that you've approached besides American?
I've spoken to nine different carriers in the last two years.
None of them have decided that this is where they want to be?
No. ... Well, some of them you didn't really fit the mold. We're also looking for Florida as a destination. We've talked to a number of carriers about service into Florida. Actually, I think one of them is coming to visit us after the first of the year to take a look at the airport.
What other types of services do you provide here?
The Columbus Airport Commission also owns and operates Flightways Columbus, the (Fixed Base Operator). The FBO on an airport is the entity that does the fueling. They're the ones that move airplanes around. They do, sometimes, light maintenance on the aircraft. But all the fueling for Delta and things like that takes place from my people. We do it. Every drop of fuel that's sold on the airport is revenue to the commission, and so that's a big moneymaker for us, too, because we pump a lot. We pumped about 800 thousand gallons, I think, last year.
... Then, of course, we generate rents from our hangars. We've got a number of corporate hangars here that pay rent. We've got the rental cars. They pay concession fees to us. The parking lot pays a concession fee to us. Who am I forgetting? FAA, their traffic control tower, they pay rent. TSA pays rent.
... We are self-sustained. The only money we get from the Consolidated Government is $40,000 a year. And the reason we get that is because the Constitutional amendment that created the commission back in 1968 said they had to give it to us.
When you were first hired, you said that you saw an opportunity to double, triple or quadruple the number of passengers in the foreseeable future. Is it taking a little longer to do than you expected?
Yeah, and that was because of the pilot shortage, (which) came to pass because in 2013 the U.S. Congress passed a new law that said, "Any person operating an airplane in a commercial ... for hire, you know, so like our regional jets, have to have a minimum of 1,500 flight hours to qualify for that position." The day before that it was 250. What we've run into is that if I was 18 again and wanted to be a pilot -- from one day to the next, the investment that I was going to have to make for my training probably went up about a $100,000.
At the same time, because most of the regionals are carrying for the majors under contract -- you know the Deltas and the Uniteds and the Americans -- their ability to pay salaries is fixed by what they get from the carrier. For a starting salary for a regional pilot for a first officer flying, say, one of these Express Jets CRJ2s is about $20,000 a year. If I've got a $100,000-plus in debt, if you will, because I had to get my 1,500 hours of flying time, a $20,000 a year job just isn't very appealing to me. There are a lot of people out there that had to rethink whether they wanted to be (commercial) pilots. ... Then at the same time, the FAA changed the crew rest hours from 8 hours, I think, to 12 hours. Overnight for the carriers, their costs went up a third just simply by virtue of they had to have another set of crews to fly that plane while the other crew was in crew rest for another four hours.
It's been a real challenging time for especially the regional carriers, because the main line guys are whole because they are drawing their pilots from the regional carriers.
So, on a scale from 1 to 10, how would you say that the airport is doing?
I'd say we're probably a good solid 6, 6 1/2. There's a lot of room for growth, there's a lot of potential. We've got a lot of real estate we can develop. We've been working with the Chamber to see if we could bring somebody on into to the airport, aeronautical or non-aeronautical. ... We're not at our max potential, which is why I wouldn't rate it any higher. But even at 6 1/2, we're not struggling. ... Budget-wise we're whole. We're paying our bills. We're taking care of our employees.
What are your views about the potential for a rail service between Columbus and Atlanta?
... I sit on the Mayor's commission for that. Of course, the big thing is going to be the money. But I think for the airport itself, it could be a real good deal. We were talking, and 90 percent of my customers are going up the road to Atlanta now. If a high speed rail were to come into Columbus -- our consultants and I have done a study on it, we've taken a look, and we've compared what happened in Europe to what could happen here.
... The short version of what we see as happening is Columbus would be a prime location for the low cost carriers -- the Spirits, the Jet Blues. I think there are a couple others out there. ... They could be very interested in operating here because they could operate from Columbus at a much lower cost, because our costs are lower than Atlanta, and they would have the ability to draw customers out of Atlanta on the rail, just like people are driving up the road now. In my opinion, we would lose Delta. ... They're not going to be able to compete with a $32 fare.
... Having two or three airlines going to numerous destinations out of Columbus, then it becomes, as the mayor quoted it a couple years ago, we would actually be the sixth runway to Atlanta. It's doable.
Are you expecting a lot of traffic for the holidays?
As a normal rule, airports this size, what they end up doing is we will probably see people, but they will cut back on frequencies a little bit, especially on the holiday itself. We aren't like the big hubs where you'll see a lot of traffic. We do get a little boost the week of, and a couple of days after, but for the most part it should probably be business as usual for us.
What about military families, do you have a lot of them using this airport?
We do see a lot of military going through the airport. ... A lot of our traffic is graduates from Fort Benning courses. ... Thursdays and Fridays are big days for us.
There have been some problems in the past with flight delays, and misplaced baggage, and those kinds of concerns at this airport. Have those situations improved?
Well, I think so. As I was indicating, it came from the DOTs consumer travel bureau that Delta completed like 99.9 percent of their flights in October/November. They are really looking at that. They went a hundred days this year without any cancellations whatsoever. So I really think a lot of people say, "Oh, I don't fly out of Columbus because I get to Atlanta and there are not enough people on the airplane, so Delta cancels the flight." Well, that's not so much the case, anymore, whether it actually was or wasn't back in the past.
Do you have any tips for people traveling during the holidays?
Yeah, remember the 311 rule when you go through the checkpoint. Don't be carrying the pies and the juices, and all that. You're only allowed three ounces, and it's got to go in that little bag. But I think probably the thing I would tell people is what I've told people ever since the first year I was an airport director: Pack your suitcase, pack your carry-on, pack your patience.
Name: Richard Howell
Hometown: Born in San Francisco, Calif.; grew up in Santa Barbara.
Job: Columbus Airport director
Previous Jobs: Operations agent, Colorado Springs Airport; airport director, Albany, Ga.; director of aviation, City of Waco, Texas; and director of airports, San Luis Obispo County.
Military Service: Twelve-and-a-half years in the Air Force; last assignment, command airfield manager for Air Force Space Command.
Education: Associate degree from Community College of the Air Force and bachelor’s in professional aeronautics from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University
Family: Wife, Deborah, three children, three grandchildren and two dogs.
Story and video: http://www.ledger-enquirer.com