Friday, November 18, 2016

Puget Sound Business Journal Interview: Randall Berg returns to chart King County Airport-Boeing Field’s future

The mayor of Auburn had some advice for Randall Berg when he reported for his first career job at the city’s tiny municipal airport.

“He walked me outside into the misty rain to have a chat. Why are we standing in the rain, I thought to myself,” Berg said. “He looked up into the sky and said, ‘Randy, this is Puget Sound. If you stay one year and see the good weather along with the rain, it’ll be home for the rest of your life.’”

The words of wisdom “went in one ear and out the other,” said Berg, who had just graduated from Pepperdine University in Malibu, California, with a degree in airport management.

He and his wife left Auburn after four years for a job at the South Lake Tahoe airport in California. But the Bergs had friends here and kept coming back, sometimes three or four times a year.

“It felt like coming home. As I got older, I kept hearing the mayor’s words,” he said.

Forty years after his wet welcome, Berg is home again – for good, he said. He spent almost 15 years in Salt Lake City and applied to a job posting to be the boss of King County International.

The Seattle airport, also known as Boeing Field, has more than 180,000 takeoffs and landings every year.

He started the job in April.

“For me, this is going full circle. Auburn is 15 miles away as the crow flies,” he said, watching airplanes taxi by his office window. “You don’t get to do that much in my line of work.”

You’re the boss of Seattle’s “other” airport. Why is Boeing Field so important to the city, its economy and aerospace players? It’s an economic engine for the city, the county and region as a whole. We are directly responsible for 5,500 jobs here, and when you include indirect jobs, it’s 16,000. Our economic impact is about $3.5 billion a year. That’s huge. Yet King County International Airport-Boeing Field sits on just 600 acres. That’s a postage stamp. We have multiple aviation users here: light recreational, flight instruction, business aircraft, air cargo and large corporate aircraft. There are 150 businesses at the airport of all sizes, from flight schools to charter air carriers to Boeing, to aircraft repair centers and parts providers, to corporate flight departments. It’s kind of a melting pot of aviation, one of the busiest general-purpose airports in the U.S.

How did you get interested in aviation and airports? I was lucky to start in the 1960s when I was in high school. I was what we called back then a “gas boy” at Van Nuys Airport in Southern California. It was an era when recreational flying was at its peak but business and corporate aviation was just beginning. I met famous entertainers and politicians who owned airplanes in the L.A. basin. You’d get a chance to talk with them. My uncle was also a pilot, mechanic and retired Federal Aviation Administration executive. When I look back at my career, it was the most fun I had. To this day, I look out my window and watch people on the ramp, especially in pouring rain, and my heart still goes out to them.

One of your big responsibilities is to create Boeing Field’s new master plan. What’s involved? A master plan is a high-level view – I call it a helicopter view – of an airport facility as a whole. With it, we are looking at where the airport will be 15 to 20 years down the road and what challenges there will be to forecast what we’ll need to meet them. It’s a two-year study. Right now, we’re on time and on budget. The Federal Aviation Administration and the county will review and approve the plan, which in turn allows you to be eligible for grants to fund overall capital requirements. This is an opportunity to look at what other users and business models could be here. What else is out there? Maintenance repair facilities? We have to be very cautious about how we use our most precious asset, the land here. The plan will help us look at those options and define the future role of this airport, including aligning us with other airports in the region to really tell a good story about why we all exist.

You are not only an active airport executive, but a university teacher. Why? I teach out of passion. I just can’t give it up. I started to lecture on aviation operations management 30 years ago at California State University in Los Angeles. Before moving to Seattle, I’d fly down to Los Angeles and give the only class on weekends in the whole university. I also taught in Salt Lake City. I lecture three weekends out of every quarter. I want to find ways to strengthen the education component of what happens here. Boeing Field could be something similar to a teaching hospital, a teaching airport for aviation. That’s a goal way out on the horizon.

What is something people don’t know about you? When I was young, I stuttered very, very badly. I believe learning to fly and holding a mike in the pilot seat helped me get it under control. I learned to fly at Van Nuys Airport. Back then, it was busy and had 500,000 light airplane operations a year and so there was no room for delays for a guy like me. When I picked up that mike on a takeoff, it was the scariest thing I’d ever done. I’d get stuck on the two in my call number – I do to this day – but the air traffic controllers all knew me. They’d jump in and finish my request for permission to take off and grant it.


Age: 65

Title: Director of aviation, King County International Airport-Boeing Field

Location: Seattle

Education: Bachelor of science in aviation management from Pepperdine University

Career: Berg was formerly chairman of the American Association of Airport Executives and spent almost 15 years as director of airport operations at Salt Lake City International Airport. He has held executive management positions at California airports through the Burbank-Glendale-Pasadena Airport Authority, in Long Beach, and in El Dorado County.

Noteworthy: As a student, Berg fueled a plane owned by actor James Arness, star of the TV western series “Gunsmoke,” and even flew with him.

Fast Fact: Berg is an antique car enthusiast who drives his 1960 Volkswagen Beetle on weekends.


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