The new executive director of the Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport is hoping to bring a fresh start to the beleaguered airport by bringing in new flights to new destinations – and putting the airport’s recent past behind them.
Michael Giardino took the helm as executive director on Nov. 6, 2017, at the end of a tumultuous year for the Newport News/ Williamsburg International Airport (PHF).
Giardino comes from the Greater Rochester International Airport, where he was the airport’s Director of Aviation and administrative director for the Monroe County Airport Authority. He spent 26 years serving with the Navy, and retired as a commander stationed in Virginia in 2011.
As executive director he is now responsible for the administration of PHF’s finances, marketing, compliance with regulations and development of air services.
“I was interviewing this place as much as they were interviewing me, and I see great potential,” Giardino said.
Before his tenure took flight, PHF dealt with scandals and disappointments. Earlier in 2017, a state audit began after the Peninsula Airport Commission used taxpayer dollars to back a line of credit to the now-defunct PEOPLExpress airline for nearly 5 million dollars.
When the airline went belly-up in January 2017, the airport commission was on the hook for the loan – thus beginning the audit into the use of state and local funds.
In the fallout from the audit, another airline – Elite Airways – announced that it would delay the beginning of its service to PHF, citing “challenging perceptions” surrounding the airport. Elite’s start of service at PHF had been announced just the month before.
Local governments, including the cities of Williamsburg and Hampton as well York and James City counties, also suspended their funding for the airport.
The audit also resulted in the firing of Giardini’s predecessor as executive director, Ken Spirito, who has since filed lawsuit for defamation against PHF.
Suffice it to say, Giardino knew when he took the job that it wouldn’t be a cakewalk.
“I know we have some challenges ahead of us, but the future is bright,” Giardino said before the Neighborhood Council of Williamsburg in the Quarterpath Recreation Center Saturday.
‘Communicate all the goodness’
His appearance before the council and an audience of Williamsburg residents was part of an outreach campaign Giardino said he was conducting to help repair the community’s trust in the airport. He said he understands the public and the media have long memories.
“It’s part of the business,” Giardino said. “Our job is to communicate all the goodness and to reassure folks we’re doing a good job.”
Some progress has been made already.
For example, the state’s audit has been completed, leading to Spirito’s firing. The audit found the commission had been out of compliance in several areas, and Spirito had on “numerous instances” entered into contracts with a disregard for procedures. Select employees had also requested reimbursement for charges on their personal credit cards numerous times.
Giardino said he spoke with Virginia’s Secretary of Transportation Aubrey Layne shortly after taking the job, and four weeks later they hammered out a settlement with Towne Bank over the People Express loan.
“Everybody acknowledged wrongdoing. Some money came back to the airport, which is good,” Giardino said. “The state had levied some heavy penalty on us, but they eased up, and on Jan. 9 we got a letter that said everything is good to go. We are good with the commonwealth.”
The audit also noted Giardino’s hiring, and his duty to make changes to PHF’s operations.
“He has been tasked with reviewing the operations at the Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport and adopting the appropriate policies as necessary,” the report stated.
Developing new air service
The key to turning the page may be more than convincing the public that the airport commission’s missteps are behind them – it’s convincing peninsula residents to use the only large commercial airport between Richmond and the Southside.
“You need to use this airport because the airport is convenient.” Giardino said. “It’s close. We’re friendly. I believe we can be affordable and make that pitch to the airlines. If we use our airport more I believe those [ticket] prices will come down.”
PHF currently offers flights with American Airlines to Philadelphia and Charlotte, N.C., and Delta flights to Atlanta. An average of seven flights per day service Newport/News Williamsburg, and Giardino said the destination airports can connect PHF flyers to locations around the country.
Between 2015 and 2017, PHF served just over 410,000 flyers annually.
Turning the page may also mean turning the calendar back to 2010, the last time the airport served more than one million passengers.
Doing so will require Giardino to attract new flight services to PHF. While Elite Airlines announced it will fly out of Newport News/Williamsburg, it has yet to do so, canceling planned routes to Myrtle Beach in March.
“The airport can handle as many [flights] as they can give us at this point. We are not constrained at the moment given the size.” Giardino said, adding PHF has one concourse that is currently unused. “I believe because of where we were seven years ago, that we can get back there relatively quickly. Five years to double what we have right now, I think that’s a worthy goal.”
PHF lost about 60 percent of its flights when Southwest Airlines purchased AirTran in 2010 and soon shut down much of their service across the country, Giardino said. Southwest already services Richmond International Airport and Norfolk International Airport, and Giardino said convincing the airline to come to PHF may be an uphill battle.
He said he’s turned his hopes to attracting United Airlines and beginning service between PHF and Chicago, Dulles, Newark, and Houston. He also said expanding Delta service to Detroit or Minneapolis is a possibility.
“Florida is a destination,” Giardino said. “Everybody wants an Orlando flight, so those are targets as well.”
He added there is also demand for low-cost airlines like Spirit and Frontier.
Giardino said in order to attract both air service providers and frequent flyers to PHF, he’s worked hard to pitch the airport, its advantages and its amenities.
He said the consolidated security checkpoint, the new airport-operated restaurant, concourse improvements and its U.S. customs station are all reasons both flyers and airlines should want to use PHF. The customs station also opens up the possibility of flights to the Caribbean and Mexico, which Giardino said would likely be successful.
“I think we have everything you would need to get on an airplane and go somewhere fabulous,” Giardino said. “On the flip side of that, we’re a place where we welcome everybody who comes to the peninsula. We’re centrally-located so you can get anywhere from where we are.”