Steve Wright smiles as he talks about the positives of the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport this week. Wright became the new director of the airport on May 2.
The sun was shining Tuesday afternoon as Steve Wright examined a new Kodiak Quest airplane on the apron at Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport.
Wright took over as airport director on May 2 after serving as airport properties manager at General Mitchell International Airport near Milwaukee, Wis., for 10 years.
As he opened the doors of the aircraft and looked around inside, a smile was plastered on his face. Though well into a career in aviation management, he looked like a youngster bitten by the flying bug getting his first look in a cockpit.
His interest in aviation indeed started early, when his family flew to California out of the same airport in Milwaukee where he would work years later. He was fascinated by all the moving parts involved in making an airport run. It led him to writing school reports on flying and even creating a makeshift cockpit in his childhood closet.
"There's been guys who graciously took me up in their airplanes ... and got me hooked into flying," Wright said.
He took pilot training in high school and went on to St. Cloud State University for its aviation program. He went to college wanting to become a pilot. While he was there, he learned about airport management, which would allow him to spend his days at an airport and still keep a reasonable schedule.
"It's been a good niche career, to be in aviation, to be around airports," Wright said. "And still be able to go home every night."
The pilot to airport manager transition is a common one for many current airport managers, Wright said. They love aviation, but still love being involved in the community and want to remain close to home.
"It's a good mix, it's a good balance," Wright said.
The Brainerd airport features two new runways and a new terminal building, Wright said. It's safe and in wonderful shape. What intrigued him about Brainerd then was the possibility for economic development.
"What's it going to look like in 20-30 years, and what do we need to do?" Wright asked. "That process is going to be an exciting time."
Commercial aviation has changed since the days when Northwest Airlines was able to fly 30-seat aircraft out of Brainerd, Wright said, which allowed for multiple daily flights. Now, the airport needs to fill a larger aircraft from SkyWest Airlines, which means less flights per day. The airport currently receives a Small Community Air Service Development grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation, which helps it provide air service.
"The goal is to be able to not have to rely on those grants," Wright said. "The goal is to be able to fill your aircraft up."
Many airlines have decided to move away from using 50-seat airplanes, Wright said, a contrast from past practices. The mentality used to be "an airplane up in the sky makes money," he said. As the economy slowed down and fuel prices rose, smaller airplanes no longer made money, so airlines switched to larger airplanes and focused on larger hubs.
"It's worked well for the airlines, the airlines are breaking profits," Wright said. "It's actually healthy for the airlines to be breaking profits, but it's hurting these small communities like Brainerd."
Even though many airlines are moving toward less frequent regional flights on larger airplanes, some airlines are now looking at the old model of more frequent flights on smaller airplanes, Wright said. Part of his job will be researching these options, if the time comes when Brainerd can't fill a larger, 75-seat airplane.
"Thinking outside of the box, are there those possibilities?" Wright asked.
There's no U.S. Customs and Border Protection checkpoint in Brainerd, but Wright is exploring the possibility of adding it, in order to make Brainerd an attractive stop for Canadian flights.
"It's just one of those tools in the toolbox that makes an airport attractive," Wright said.
Wright is also looking into improving the airport's use of technology, specifically databases and metrics to track what's going on at the airport. When the airport begins looking at its long-term air service, it will need to have the data showing where its passengers are going.
"The more knowledge that we have, we can take that to the various airlines...that are available to us," Wright said. "The most support that we can show where they can fill their airplanes, the better service we will get."
The airport has a good relationship with its tenants, Wright said. North Point Aviation, the airport's fixed-base operator, is top-notch, he said. They've found a niche market in selling the Kodiak Quest, which when combined with fuel sales, helps the business support itself.
"It's a very healthy environment for an aviation business," Wright said. "That's a very good plus for Brainerd, is the diverse mix of activity here."
Brainerd is in a unique geographic position, Wright said. People can drive to the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport and fly from there, he said, but they have to contend with increasingly long Transportation Security Administration security checkpoint lines.
"You really can travel easy when you fly out of Brainerd," Wright said.
Wright was already familiar with the Brainerd airport when he started, so he wasn't surprised by anything. He commended the city of Brainerd, Crow Wing County and the Airport Commission for "a job well done on developing a good, solid airport with very safe runways."
Directing the action
Wright, like all accredited airport executives, is trained across all the things involved in making an airport run. This includes procedures, operations, maintenance, safety, administration, finance and compliance.
An airport director wears multiple hats, Wright said. He has to ensure the safety and efficiency of the airport, as well as work the community to develop the airport. Sometimes his job is simply making sure the runways are plowed and free of snow during the winter.
"In the end, we want to be singing off the same page," Wright said.
A big part of an airport director's job is working with the Federal Aviation Administration. Wright said his past experience working with the federal aviation authority has been positive.
"You really don't appreciate bureaucracy until you're in bureaucracy," Wright said with a chuckle.
When it comes to running an airport, there are different layers of bureaucracy, Wright said. There are the local layers, with city and county governments. There are state layers, with the Minnesota Department of Transportation's Office of Aeronautics and Aviation. Finally, there are the federal layers, which include the FAA. Because aviation frequently crosses state and national boundaries, it makes sense to have a healthy level of oversight, he said.
"When you see it from that big-picture perspective, it makes a lot of sense, of why they need all the information that they need," Wright said. "You want the freedom to do what you want to do, however, when you do have those safeguards in place, it does make for a very solid system."
Before his time in Milwaukee, Wright served as airport manager at Willmar Municipal Airport for five years. It was during a time of big change for the airport, which was at the tail end of a relocation project spanning two decades. The city needed to relocate its airport in order to install a precision instrument approach into the runway, which wouldn't fit at the old airport site.
"(It's) a necessity if you're wanting to attract corporations or airline service into your community," Wright said. "They really need to be able to operate into your airport when the weather's bad."
Wright came in during the construction portion of the project, after about 20 years of planning had occurred. He presided over the project, which took the better part of 5 years and required multiple federal and state grants.
In Willmar, Wright learned it takes a community to run an airport. Brainerd has a diverse mix of people using the airport, from recreational pilots to commercial airlines to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources air tanker base.
"That takes a diverse mix of people caring about this airport and promoting the use of this airport," Wright said. "It does take a community, it does take partnerships."
His time in Milwaukee was on the administrative side and dealt heavily in the revenue coming into the airport and the tenants who were partnering with the airport.
"The experience here in Brainerd I can see is a mixture of the two," Wright said.
It's only been a few weeks, but Brainerd is everything Wright and his family wanted, he said. His wife and five sons were able to move with him when he started. His sons range in age from 11 months old to 11 years old, so it's been great for them to "wear off energy" outside, he said with a laugh.
"We're happy to be in the northwoods again," Wright said. "It's God's gift to this planet."
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