- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 18, 2003

Less than two weeks on the job, James Bennett already is facing political dilemmas as president and chief executive officer of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority.

The authority manages Ronald Reagan Washington National and Washington Dulles International airports.

Legislation proposed in the House last week would add 36 daily flights at Reagan Airport, most of them long-distance routes that use big jets. The Senate version of the bill would add 12 daily flights.

Mr. Bennett and local members of Congress oppose a higher number of flights, saying it would increase noise and congestion and diminish local control over airport decisions. Supporters of the legislation say it would be good for business at the airport.

Regardless of the outcome, the issue demonstrates how politics can be as important for Washington’s airports as moving airplanes in and out of them.

“It’s Congress making the decision here,” Mr. Bennett said.

This week, another issue arose when officials from Lufthansa, the German airline, complained about understaffing of U.S. Customs checkpoints that slowed passengers departing from Dulles flights.

Mr. Bennett, 48, assumed control of the airports May 5during the most turbulent time since the federal government turned them over to private control in 1987. Major airlines are in bankruptcy, terrorism concerns have raised security costs, and commercial aviation struggles to cope with new political and financial realities.

He comes to the job with high expectations and praise from politicians and aviation industry insiders.

“Jim Bennett has my unequivocal support,” said Rep. James P. Moran, a Virginia Democrat whose district includes the airports. “He’s got the most relevant experience, the most extensive experience.”

For the past seven years, Mr. Bennett was the airports authority’s chief operating officer in the shadow of James Wilding, who retired this month as president and chief executive officer.

Mr. Bennetts entire career has been in commercial aviation. He has worked as assistant aviation director at Sky Harbor International Airport in Phoenix and as director of the Shreveport (La.) Airport Authority. He also was aeronautics director for the city of Flint, Mich.

“I think he’ll do a fine job. He’s very well-qualified to manage those two airports,” said Tom Browne, a managing director for the Air Transport Association, a trade group for major airlines.

David Z. Plavin, president of the Airports Council International-North America, described Mr. Bennett as the kind of leader the airports need “through this challenging time.”

Mr. Bennett said never before he arrived in 1996 had he seen the kind of political turmoil he encountered in the Washington area. The past two years have been the worst.

“Over the past seven years, one of the more significant things we have experienced has been the events of September 11, then the transition to a new security environment at our airports.”

However, he said the new security procedures are minor inconveniences, not obstacles.

“It’s a little more structured than it used to be, but I don’t get a militaristic sense from it,” Mr. Bennett said.

The upheavals are leading the airline industry into changes that have not ended and no one can predict, he said.

“The situation that we have today in the industry is very much a transitional situation,” Mr. Bennett said. “There’s going to be, I think, significant changes as we come out of this period that we’re in with the airline industry. I’m still not quite sure what the ultimate result of those changes are going to be.”

Although war and terrorism have prompted many of the changes, Mr. Bennett says, an equal factor is the natural evolution of the airline industry.

The shift of major airlines toward greater use of regional jets for relatively short trips is a primary example of the restructuring, he said. American Airlines, US Airways and United Airlines, for example, are copying the business model of low-cost air carriers, such as Southwest Airlines and JetBlue Airways.

“Each of those components is changing the industry and I think it’s changing it very dramatically, maybe even on the scale of what we saw with airline deregulation 20 or so years ago,” he said.

Although the changes are difficult, he says, they will bring long-term benefits.

“I don’t view it as being a bad thing,” Mr. Bennett said. “It is very painful. It is very painful for the airlines, it is very painful to the employees of the airlines, it is very painful for the airports. But I tend to view it very optimistically. We’re positioning our industry to continue to grow.”

Despite industrywide problems, Mr. Bennett says, Washington’s airports are financially stable.

“I see our business as continuing to grow,” he said. “Washington and our airports are in a very unique position in that we have a very strong air travel market here.”

The continued growth will bring significant expansion projects, he said.

“We have several major projects under way at Dulles that will be on line before Metrorail gets to Dulles,” Mr. Bennett said. The projects include a fourth runway and an underground train system. A fifth runway could be added if airline travel continues growing.

Reagan Airport’s layout probably will not change much, he said.

“I don’t see additional runways at National Airport,” Mr. Bennett said. “National Airport is what it is. We’ve got a very limited campus here.”

The airport is hemmed in by the George Washington Parkway on one side and the Potomac River on the other.

Like Mr. Wilding, Mr. Bennett plans to closely follow any business agenda set by the airports’ 13-member board of directors.

“I may get to those goals and programs a bit different than Jim did, but that’s just a matter of my personality and experiences versus his personality and his experiences,” he said.

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