Sunday, January 08, 2017

Director: ‘Sky’s the limit’ for Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport

PITTSTON TWP. — Carl R. Beardsley Jr. learned about airports from the ground up.

He earned a pilot’s license by 19, rented cars to arriving air travelers, weighed luggage and tested runways for slickness.

Or, the 47-year-old Scranton resident puts it, he tested runways for the “friction coefficient.”

Pilots know that means how well plane tires grip runways. Coming from Beardsley, the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton International Airport director, the term makes him sound like someone passionate about airplanes, the airports where they live and the customers who visit.

Beardsley, the former commissioner of aviation at Greater Binghamton Airport, also loves a good load factor, the percentage of seats filled on all the flights departing an airport monthly. He can boast about a pretty robust one at the airport he has run for two years as of this past Monday. The load factor here regularly tops 85 percent (86.6 percent in November) in an industry where 80 percent ranks well.

“With the support of the local community and the support of the business community, the sky’s the limit,” Beardsley said in his usual unflinchingly enthusiastic tone. “We can expand significantly.” 

Not long after Beardsley replaced 25-year director Barry Centini in January 2015, the airport began a long stretch of sustained growth in passenger boardings. For 13 straight months starting in August 2015, more passengers flew out of its terminal than the same month the previous year. The streak ended with a 1.9 percent decline in September, but with just a normal December (the data comes out next week), 2016 will rank second only to 2011 in passenger boardings in the last 10 years.

Making improvements

Beardsley can’t take all the credit for the uptick. The nation’s economic revival helped. Allegiant Air, recruited under Centini in 2012, has fueled much of the local growth, too, but Allegiant also added new flights to Tampa, Florida, in Beardsley’s first year. Beyond that, United Airlines resumed a flight to Chicago last May, Delta Air Lines added larger planes because of demand and American Airlines just added flights to Charlotte, North Carolina.

Under Beardsley, the airport adopted the motto, “Rising Above,” and revamped its website to increase user-friendliness; installed new flight departure/arrival screens and added one at the nearby Holiday Inn Express hotel; hired a new vendor to run its restaurant, now known as Lucky’s Craft Food & Drink; added a Dunkin Donuts; and began planning to move the eateries beyond its security screening hardware. A new maintenance yard for rental cars is also in the works. Beardsley said he’s hoping to revive the airport’s annual air shows someday.

Steps like that eventually will matter in attracting more travelers, Beardsley said.

For example, he expects more restaurant business because airline passengers won’t worry about missing a flight while waiting for security screening.

The airport, which operates on a $6 million annual budget, still needs subsides from its two members counties, Luzerne and Lackawanna: $239,000 last year and an estimated $229,000 this year mainly because of increasing pension costs. The county subsidies haven’t changed much over the years, but Beardsley hopes to change that.

“Although we are not today, it is our goal to be self-sufficient in the future,” Beardsley said.

Beardsley has developed a reputation for working hard at it. Airport security head George Bieber often finds Beardsley arriving early and leaving far later than anyone else.

“He’s just so wrapped up in us being successful,” Bieber said. “He’s new life for this place.”

Climbing the ladder

Always upbeat and affable, if soft-spoken, Beardsley preferred sitting for an interview in the airport board conference room, saying his office looked too messy because of a project he had going.

Now a Scranton resident, he grew up in Chenango Bridge, New York, just outside of Binghamton. He traced his passion for aviation to attending air shows as a youth and a career-day conversation with a corporate jet pilot during his high school junior year.

The pilot’s explanation of the aviation business “just connected” as he thought about college.

He settled on aviation-oriented Daniel Webster College, whose campus in Nashua, New Hampshire, sat on an airport. He double-majored in flight operations and aviation management, a school official said, but also learned how to fly planes. He still renews his pilot’s license annually.

“There’s this freedom in the air. You’re 19 years old, you’re in the air, you’re talking to air-traffic control, you’re standing in line with other pilots, you felt very important,” he said. “And, I really took to that and I thought that being a pilot would be absolutely fantastic.”

After graduation, he landed a job weighing and handling luggage with Northwest Airlines at the Binghamton airport. Northwest sometimes sent him to terminals in Minneapolis, Detroit and Erie because he was young and willing to roam, but hanging out with pilots and flight attendants taught him piloting wasn’t for him.

“It started dawning on me that this whole piloting thing is going to take a whole lot of time and there’s going to be times when I’m not home for quite some period,” he said.

While still working for Northwest in Binghamton, he doubled as a clerk for Thrifty Car Rental. He also called Carl Olson, the airport’s deputy commissioner of aviation, and asked to shadow him — for free — if Olson would consider him when a job opened up.

“I had an immediate respect for him and that mindset,” Olson said.

Beardsley said his offer only made sense.

“Aviation has many elements and the more elements that you understand, the better off you are as an airport manager,” he said.

Six months later, the airport needed someone new to oversee day-to-day physical operations. Olson said he never bothered to advertise for candidates. He hired Beardsley.

“He had very strong skills and great character,” he said. “He really distinguished himself.”

In 1998, Olson was promoted to commissioner of aviation and needed his own deputy. Again, no advertising.

“He’s a high quality person,” he said. “I think the world of him.”

In 2005, when Olson moved on, Beardsley replaced him and ran Binghamton’s airport until he arrived here.

In Binghamton, a smaller airport than here, annual passenger boardings fluctuated wildly from year to year during his tenure and declined overall from about 122,000 his first year to 82,000 in 2014, his final one, according to Federal Aviation Administration statistics. Still, Beardsley said, he helped attract Delta Air Lines there. Delta will be Binghamton’s lone major carrier after American pulls out in February.

Planning for the future

Centini’s retirement attracted numerous resumes from potential replacements. Eager for a new challenge at a larger airport with more community support, Beardsley applied. His resume stood out to Lackawanna County Commissioner and airport board Chairman Patrick O’Malley.

“On his (resume) I wrote, ‘If this guy is half of what his resume is, he’s the director.’” And I had no idea who he was,” O’Malley said . “He’s a breath of fresh air … Barry did a great job. This was the perfect person to take over and move the airport even further.”

“Hey, we understand what a load factor is now,” O’Malley joked.

After hiring Beardsley, who makes $115,000 annually, the airport board instructed him to find out what people, especially business people, want in an airport, said Luzerne County Councilman and airport board member Rick Williams.

Greater Scranton Chamber of Commerce President Robert Durkin said Beardsley impressed his board so much they peppered him with questions for half an hour.

“He recognizes that the business traveler drives his business,” Durkin said.

Beardsley said he regularly meets with local businesses to tout the airport and scout for potential customers.

“My first question is always, where are you looking to go from a direct standpoint rather than connecting,” he said.

He compiles the information he gathers and incorporates that into marketing of the airport to airlines and potential passengers, he said. Good load factors tell airlines they should expand service here. Beardsley said he combats any perception that other nearby airports offer cheaper air fares by reminding travelers of the hidden costs involved with other airports — travel time, fuel, higher parking rates, possible hotel stays.

“We want to be considered first. There are going to be times when our airfares are lower than other airports. There are going to be times that we’re greater than other airports. There are no absolutes when it comes to airfare. But we always encourage people to at least take a look at us,” Beardsley said. “They might be surprised.”


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