Every Airport needs a Leo Schefer

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The Airport Director has tremendous authority and competence to run this enterprise of a public asset which serves commercial interests—all within the perimeter fences and within its existing schedule. When she/he wants to influence matters, even issues relevant to this aviation infrastructure, outside of those boundaries, the power diminishes. Those constraints make the executive position of these important community assets difficult.

Consider:

  • It would be beneficial to improve access to an airport by highways or public transit, BUT if the airport boss opined about where a road or right-of-way should be located, the local political leaders would attack that position as being that of an interloper.
  • Suppose a tremendous public building will be built near the airport. Expressing an opinion in favor of your property will be interpreted as opposition to other sites. That puts the executive in an awkward position, to say the least.
  • Then consider that your favored place was selected, an airport director, who would weigh in on the funding of such an asset, would not be well considered. Or, even worse, for trying to raise donations for such an addition, he/she would be excoriated.
  • Similarly, every airport executive would appreciate the opportunity to be an advocate on international aviation policy. However, the Airport Board would question whether the time and dollars allocated to such a crusade, when the goal would benefit all US airports, were a good expenditure of their public funds.
  • A real job requirement for running an airport is to expand the schedules there. Right? Not so says your largest tenant, an airline which coincidentally pays the greatest rent. “Bring in more competitors and I’ll reduce my flights” is more than a hypothetical threat.
  • Say that you are willing to risk that incumbent backlash and assume that you CAN afford a trip to an airline not yet serving your terminal, how do you answer the question “how many passengers can you assure will fill my seats?”

Those are not hypotheticals, but are real challenges faced by airport managers everywhere. How do these professionals deal with the local, national and carrier conflicts. The best managers establish informal networks and rely on such unconnected support; the bad examples entail directors whose fingerprints are found on the unofficial coalition.

The Washington Airports Task Force (née Washington Dulles Task Force with Tom Morr as its founder) is the best friend of the Chief Executive Officers of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority (Jim Wilding, David Bennett and John Potter). The WATF and the MWAA have a symbiotic relationship.

WATF has had great success because its longest serving president, Leo Schefer. He is a cordial and gracious human being. Yes, those are qualities found in many people, but they are attributes critical to the Task Force as being a supporter of, rather than a substitute for, MWAA. A more aggressive and aggrandizing personality likely would have created tension with the principal in this relationship.

Leo understood the need to be more knowledgeable about the facts and policies of the issues which the WATF attacked than any other participants in the debate. Whether it was the demographics of the DMV passenger or the vagaries of international aviation treaties or the cost/benefits of public transit, he knew all of the intricacies of these technical subjects. He knew how to find experts and how to learn from the best. Perhaps a hidden benefit from being a native of the UK, his distinctive speech pattern, in and of itself, added great credibility to whatever he said, whether it was true or not.

air service growth since 1982

Another quality of the man is his ability to attract talent. Both his staff and his Board were superb people. When he would take a delegation to meet with a prospective Carrier, he would bring just the right roster of executives with business connections both in the DC area and at the future airline’s primary hub(s). They could authoritatively say that those seats would be filled with her/his employees.

While Leo’s roots are as an engineer, he has innate skills at selling. He was an able advocate for siting the Udvar Hazy Center at Dulles, for convincing state, federal and individual funding sources for that Museum, for convincing all of the authorities with interests in approving/funding the Silver Line and for creating plus holding together an alliance to make “Open Skies” the global standard for aviation agreements.

As the commendation for the 2015 Williams Trophy states, Leo deserves this exceptional honor

“for his distinguished career, leading the WATF for over 25 years, where he was critical in supporting the establishment of the Washington Metropolitan Airports Authority, the expansion of air service for the Washington region, the creation of the National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center, the push for Metro’s Silver Line to improve access to Dulles Airport and the establishment of the U.S. Open Skies Aviation Policy.”

Most importantly, Leo is a good, hard-working guy. A WELL DESERVED AWARD and the fact that the trophy is named for his close friend and incredible human being, Carrington Williams.

 

ARTICLE: Washington Airports Task Force honors Leo Schefer

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