When Jeff Mulder came to Tulsa for an interview nearly 12 years ago, the only thing he knew about Oklahoma was what he had read in John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath.”
“I did not have any idea what to expect” he said.
Shortly after arriving for his interview, Mulder recalled, he called his wife and told her about the trees and hills in Tulsa.
The job worked out, and Mulder became Tulsa’s airports director in May 2005.
But the man overseeing Tulsa International Airport and R.L. Jones Jr. Airport has walked out the door after 11½ years, leaving at the end of last year to become executive director of Southwest Florida International Airport and Page Field in Fort Myers, Florida.
He submitted his resignation to the Tulsa Airports Improvement Trust Board in late October, effective Dec. 31.
Mulder said among his accomplishments while serving here was the rebuilding the main runway at Tulsa International Airport.
The challenge was to have minimal impact on flights — particularly airline service — while reconstructing the intersection of the north-south runway, the airport’s longest, with its secondary east-west strip.
It is “good for the next 25 years,” Mulder said, who described the 9,999 feet of concrete as the “most important part of infrastructure in northeast Oklahoma” because of all the jobs at Tulsa International.
One issue Mulder inherited was the fallout from the origins and bankruptcy of Tulsa-based Great Plains Airlines and the lawsuits that resulted between the Tulsa Airports Improvement Trust and the Bank of Oklahoma.
“It impacted everything when issuing bonds” for development, Mulder said.
The $15.56 million lawsuit was settled in late 2015. It was initiated in 2013, but had its origins dated back to November 2000.
Completing the noise abatement project around Tulsa International, updating the terminal concourses, expanding the parking garage — all multi-million dollar projects — and transferring the airports from a city department into a stand-alone entity are also at the top of Mulder’s list of accomplishments.
Being a stand-alone entity has “helped a lot, because we can move a lot quicker,” he said. Tulsa is one of several airports to have taken that course because they “can be more responsive, especially to airline needs,” he said.
Instead of being city employees, the airport staff is now directly employed by the airport. As a result, Mulder no longer has to wear the multiple hats he donned while serving over a number of departments related to the city’s infrastructure and transit system from 2009 to ‘13.
All that was done from his airport office, since he was, Mulder said, “not involved in day-to-day” activities.
He also served a year as chairman of the American Association of Airport Executives with some 5,100 members from 3,300 airports and 500 corporate members. His term ended this past June.
Mulder said the past three mayors — Bill LaFortune, Kathy Taylor and Dewey F. Bartlett, Jr. — all have been supportive of the airport, and the community “is very supportive of the airport.”
With 11½ years at the helm, Mulder ranks fourth for longevity among the seven men who have run the airport since 1928 — the three with more: Charlie Short, 27 years; and Pat Combs and Brent Kitchen, 16 years each. In addition, Mike Kier, director of the city’s finance department, worked as interim director for a year beginning in 2004. There was a contested manager for two week in 1932.
Prior to coming to Tulsa, Mulder had been director of the Outagamie County Regional Airport in Appleton, Wisconsin. The Michigan native previously served in various positions, beginning in 1988, at the New Orleans International Airport, Evansville Regional Airport in Indiana and Milwaukee’s International Airport.
Mulder already knows some of the challenges he will face in his new post in Fort Myers. The airport has just a single runway, leaving it at risk of seeing all flights to be diverted to either Miami or Tampa if something happens to shut down its lifeline, he said.
The airport is served by more airlines than Tulsa International and handles more passengers per year, most of them during the three-month period beginning each December.
It also has three security checkpoints, causing bottlenecks.
That is a reversal of Tulsa International, which has one checkpoint and three runways.
As to his successor, Mulder said, “some good qualified people” have applied for the post and he was “impressed with the list (of candidates)” he saw.
Alex Higgins, deputy airports director for marketing and community relations, has been named by the trust to serve as interim airports director until a new director has been selected.
Mulder’s said his successor will receive an annual salary of more than $150,000, and the trust will probably concentrate on a deputy director at an airport similar in size to Tulsa or larger.
Tulsa is “great place to be an airport director,” he said.