With the return of Phoenix flights to Amarillo runways, Michael Conner, the new director at Rick Husband Amarillo International Airport, said he’s got his eyes set on the next destination.
Conner took over the helm at the airport this month — about eight months after the former director left for personal reasons.
Conner began his career at the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport, where he finished his 12-year run there as the assistant airport director.
The Amarillo Globe-News sat down with Conner to get his take on where he sees the airport heading in the immediate and long-term future.
Globe-News: Phoenix flights are practically in the bag. What is an untapped market you’ll look at next?
Conner: Intrastate flying has been ignored possibly in the past just by the mere fact that we don’t have a lot of smaller cities covered. And, I’ve already been in talks with another airline that does a lot of that intrastate flying, so I think that we can possibly coerce some of those smaller airports, or at least other destinations within Texas that we’re currently not flying to. We think that we’ve possibly found one that may be interested, and certainly Austin is key to us. If you analyze the top cities that we’ve identified in previous studies, Austin is pretty up there. I think that area would be a good area to go.
Q: The airport was without a permanent director for about eight months prior to you starting this month. How did that impact the plan to resume flights to Phoenix — it seems like that was somewhat stalled in the interim — are we in some type of time crunch due to the two-year deadline?
A: I can’t really speculate as to why that was stalled quite as bad as it seems to have been, but I think it’s more important just going forward to get it moving. It’s not so much that we’re going to lose grant funding or anything; I’m not as concerned about that as I am just getting the airline to agree to actually move forward with it at this point.
I’ve been trying to get a hold of the DOT (Department of Transportation) people who administer that grant to allow us to extend it a little bit. I’m not worried about a time crunch on it.
Q: What are some other priorities, outside of the master plan, that you’d like to focus on?
A: When I got here for interviews, I saw first-hand what the airport is like from a passenger’s perspective, so I think I’ll be trying to implement some initial things that will improve the customer experience here. I’m looking at initially improving the bag claim area. I think that we’ve got some impression issues that can be improved there.
It just seems kind of dark. So, I want to improve that a little bit; improve the lighting, maybe repaint the walls more inviting colors, and also the whole ‘Welcome to Amarillo’ visitor area, we’re going to be working with the CVC (Convention & Visitor Council) to improve that. We’ve partnered with them at this point to improve that whole area, just kind of knock out that whole double wall section, redo it, put in some better lighting and make it a more inviting place for new people to come into Amarillo.
I personally think there are numerous things to do and I think that needs to be highlighted to people who are coming here whether it’s for business or for leisure — they just need to know that, hey, Amarillo is more than just whatever they came here to do. It’s not just a business center, it’s not just maybe where a relative is, there are actually things to do here and I think just giving them a first impression of, “Hey, this is a bright place, it’s a fun place to be,” I think that’s the key.
Q: What else?
A: My first priority has currently been, and will continue to be, to roll out a new mission and vision statement for the airport. This will be really all encompassing, the entire airport staff and how we deal with the traveling public, also how we deal with our tenants, to give them a real straightforward, “Here’s why we’re here, here’s how we’re gonna operate.”
I was so glad to see the city sit down for two straight days and allow the department heads and staff to come in and witness what was going on because that allows me to then compare my plan for the vision and the mission for the airport, to coordinate that directly with what the city has going on.
Q: During those talks, city council members were asked to imagine Amarillo 2035 What do you envision the airport will be focusing on then?
A: For the airport as a whole, I’d like to see more industrial aviation. With Bell here and some possibilities for their expansion, I think that’s really important. I think that that’s not going away. I think it’s going to be here for the long term and I’d like to start attracting some additional industrial aviation, maybe some other manufacturers with other types of aircraft, maybe some parts manufacturing for aircraft and aviation in general.
Q: What about a spaceport — do you think that’s a market we need to pay attention to?
A: I think a lot of people see spaceport stuff as kind of pie in the sky, but here you’ve got such a long runway that it would be prime for anything that’s occurring in that area. I’m watching that arena very closely to see how fast it’s going to be improving; you’ve got key players like Virgin obviously trying to make their headway in that area and really get things going. If that starts to take off, I think that we can move into that area as well.