After working at several airports around the country—including the Gulfport-Biloxi International Airport, LaGuardia Airport and Philadelphia International Airport— Ken Spirito joined the Greater Peoria Regional Airport Authority. As the Director of Airports, he is responsible for managing and developing both the Greater Peoria Regional Airport (PIA) and Mt. Hawley Airport (3MY). Spirito was the youngest airport professional to be named to the American Association of Airport Executive’s prestigious Board of Examiners and was one of the youngest airport executives to receive Accredited Airport Executive status from the group. He is one of only 384 airport professionals in the world with this title. Spirito has been active in the airport profession for over 14 years and is currently working on the redevelopment of the commercial terminal facility as well as restructuring and planning airside and landside capacity projects. Spirito holds a bachelor’s degree in aeronautics and management from Dowling College and has earned 12 credits towards his master’s degree in public administration. He is married and has two daughters.
Your degree is in aeronautics and management from Dowling College in Oakdale, New York. Who or what influenced you to seek that career?
I have always been fascinated with airplanes from the very first moment I can remember as a child. I can vividly remember being in the back seat of my parents’ car driving past JFK airport on the Belt Parkway (those of you who know the Belt Parkway, you do very little driving and a lot of standing still in traffic). Driving past an airport and seeing all the airplanes taking off and landing was the most incredible feeling. A feeling of curiosity, a feeling of excitement and a feeling of adventure. I knew that someday I would be a part of that. I was a typical kid playing all sports and getting into the worst trouble, but one thing always stood me apart from others—my love for aviation. My driveway at home was a canvas for different airports across the United States. With a piece of chalk, blocks and what seemed like hundreds of airplanes, I created airports on my driveway. Drawing the most detailed version of an airport that interested me—LaGuardia, San Francisco and San Diego to name a few. And as strange as it sounds, I played airports and airplanes.
My father worked for the Department of Defense and worked on several projects such as the F-14 Tomcat, E2C Hawkeye, B-1 Bomber and my favorite military aircraft—the A-10 Thunderbolt (Warthog). Throughout my childhood I always knew I would end up doing something in aviation. Of course, the first thing I wanted to do was to be an airline pilot, then a military pilot, then a corporate pilot and then back to being a commercial pilot. I must have changed my mind a thousand times. One day, it just dawned on me that there was another side to aviation—AIRPORTS! From there I wanted to know everything possible about airports and how they ticked. I remember the first encounter I had with a reallife airport director. His name was Alfred Warner and he was the airport director at Islip Macarthur Airport on Long Island. I called his office one day and made an appointment and interviewed him. I wanted to know straight from the horse’s mouth what I was getting myself into and what I was going to spend my parents’ money on before I started college. I was very lucky to have parents supportive of my decisions and who paid for my college education. I wanted to be very sure of this move since it was a big one for me. I remember leaving his office with a smile from ear to ear and knowing that this was for me.
Do you have your pilot’s license or have you ever had the desire to pilot an aircraft?
I do not have my pilot’s license. I started as a student pilot in college and loved every minute of it. I did realize, however, that even though I loved flying, I loved the idea of managing an airport more. I stopped flying just short of soloing and getting my license. I have unofficially logged many hours in several different airplanes and even an ultra light. I have even jumped out of a perfectly good working airplane—that was so fun, but once is enough. I think when my kids are grown and out on their own, I will finish off my license. It is number five on my life “to do” list.
In your position as director of airports, you have authority over both the Greater Peoria Airport and Mt. Hawley airport. What are the differences in regulations between commercial airports and private airports? Rules for the aircraft?
The Greater Peoria Airport Authority is responsible for operating, maintaining and managing both the Greater Peoria Regional Airport and Mt. Hawley Airport (3MY). The two airports are very different in many aspects. From a regulatory perspective, there are major differences between the two airports. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is the principal regulatory agency overseeing the safety and certification of airports across the United States.
The FAA is also the funding agency for capital improvements at airports. Safety, security and certification standards are different at each airport because of the traffic and operation mix at each airport. For example, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is responsible for overseeing security of our national transportation system. They have different roles at each airport across the United States and will vary from security checkpoint screening at commercial service airports like PIA, to oversight of any threat at one of the smallest airports like Mt. Hawley. However, the TSA is extremely visible at PIA versus smaller General Aviation (GA) airports like Mt. Hawley. There are also other regulations that will affect both our airports in different ways, but do not diminish the safety and security standards at each of our airports. The regulatory differences are based on activity level and geographic proximity to high level threat areas—Washington, D.C. for example.
How important is Mt. Hawley Airport to Peoria?
Mt. Hawley and its GA traffic are very important to the greater Peoria area. Mt. Hawley provides accessible, convenient facilities for three types of users—business, recreation and student. From a business perspective, Mt. Hawley is used for the business traveler who wants to avoid larger airports and use either their own corporate aircraft or chartered aircraft. They can fly to/from Mt. Hawley with very little interaction with the “system.” The recreational user owns or rents an airplane for pleasure purposes and generally uses that aircraft on the weekends or as time permits. The third type of user is broken down into two categories—student and educational business. All users must learn to fly and all pilots must be “current” in order to maintain their license. There are businesses that provide these services, including FAA-certified programs to teach perspective students and current students how to fly. Peoria Aviation is our full-service Fixed Based Operator (FBO) at Mt. Hawley and provides fuel, maintenance and other general services for the traveling public. Jeff Whales has been the owner/manager of Peoria Aviation since February 2006. Mt. Hawley is the temporary home of the OSF Life Flight operation. Life Flight operates 24-hour helicopter ambulance service. OSF is in the process of building a permanent facility at PIA. OSF temporarily located at Mt. Hawley in June 2006.
What updates are needed for Mt. Hawley Airport?
Mt. Hawley is a 154-acre airport with one runway that is 3,600 feet long and 60 feet wide. The runway currently has no instrumentation to provide approach services during “instrument” weather conditions. Therefore, during these conditions, the airport is not conveniently accessible. Having no instrumentation and a limited size runway, the true potential of that airport has not been realized. Ultimately, the runway needs to be 5,000 feet long by 75 feet wide, and a very basic instrumentation system must be in place. In addition to that, pavement needs to be upgraded, land must be acquired and many infrastructure improvements will need to be made. There are two steps that must be taken in order to achieve the ultimate build-out of that airport.
First, the Airport Authority has commissioned a two-phased study that will quantify and identify the true growth potential and facility requirements needed to accommodate the growth potential. The study will also identify the estimated cost for the needed facilities and provide important decision-making factors for management and the Board of Commissioners to consider. Up until this point, we have not had the information available for us to make a long-term decision for the use and direction of Mt. Hawley. Second, the long-term funding mechanism for Mt. Hawley must be solidified. Currently, Mt. Hawley qualifies for $150,000 each year in GA entitlement funds from the FAA. That money can be used for planning and development of facilities at Mt. Hawley. Clearly, $150,000 a year is not enough money to do the necessary improvements outlined in the aforementioned. In many cases, we would be able to depend on the state to provide funding for these improvements, but unfortunately, Illinois has let its funding program for transportation infrastructure expire. Therefore, without a long-term funding mechanism, we will have to consider the possibility of closing Mt. Hawley if we do not have the funding resources for capital improvements.
Explain what terminal upgrades are planned in the next five and 10 years for the Greater Peoria Regional Airport.
The use of private aircraft is becoming more and more popular every year. Since the tragic events of 9/11, businesses are depending on the accessibility and convenience of using their own aircraft, charters or even “fractional ownership” of aircraft. Fractional ownership allows a business to “buy” time on a particular airplane or type of airplane. This is very similar to buying a vacation time-share property. There are many advantages when flying on private aircraft—it saves time, increases productivity, minimizes non-business hours, avoids hub-to-hub connections and avoids many system delays. In central Illinois, we are seeing an increase in private aircraft activity for business purposes. We will see an even bigger increase nationwide as new aircraft technology is introduced, making it more affordable for businesses to purchase private aircraft.
The Greater Peoria Airport Authority is embarking on a new era of development. Together with Reynolds, Smith and Hills and our local team PSA Dewberry and STS Consultants, we are planning to build a new terminal facility that will replace the existing terminal. Part of our overall plan to grow and provide better commercial airline services requires us to provide the facilities needed for long-term growth of our passenger base. This includes adding more airline ticket counters, adding more gates, increasing the size of circulation space and providing adequate facilities for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to conduct passenger screening services. The Airport Authority plans to announce detailed plans to the public in the near future.
The FAA and air traffic controllers’ union continue to struggle to reach agreement on pay and benefits. What are the current requirements to become an air traffic controller? In your opinion, should they be controlled by the FAA?
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is responsible for managing the nation’s air traffic control system. The air traffic controllers are responsible for coordinating and managing thousands of airplanes in our sky and on the ground 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. They have stressful, demanding jobs that require a lot of attention, specific skills and a lot of training. They perform their jobs with the highest level of safety and oversight and provide excellent service to the pilots and their passengers. Peoria is very fortunate to have a professional FAA staff and a superior level of service. PIA provides a 24-hour, FAA-staffed control tower. We are the only airport downstate to have this level of service. With 24-hour cargo operations and the addition of OSF Life Flight services, the FAA will continue to provide 24-hour air traffic services at the Greater Peoria Regional Airport.
Explain the current taxing district that supports the airport and why it is important to expand those boundaries.
The Greater Peoria Airport Authority and our legislators are moving forward to correct a fundamentally unfair situation where only a portion of the citizens that benefit from the Greater Peoria Regional Airport actually support it financially. GPAA’s boundaries or taxing district were established in 1950. The boundaries include only a small portion of Peoria County and have not changed since their inception. The original boundaries may have been appropriate 50 years ago; however, over time both the Greater Peoria Regional Airport and the users who benefit from it have changed. The current territorial boundaries unfairly tax a portion of Peoria County citizens, while all Peoria County citizens benefit. Approximately 70 percent of PIA users are Peoria County residents. The tax district should be expanded to include Peoria County in its entirety. While expanding the tax base of the Authority, our proposed change would actually reduce the tax burden on those taxpayers who currently reside within the boundaries of the Authority.
There has been discussion for years about locating one central downstate airport. What is unique to PIA that makes it a very valuable airport?
The concept of consolidating airports in central Illinois has been lingering around for some time. I was introduced to this issue when I first started here last April. There are many airports in central Illinois that are in close proximity to each other. All the airports serve a specific function and provide economic benefits for their respective communities. The Greater Peoria Airport Authority is the only airport authority in Illinois tasked with operating a multiple airport system with multimodal transportation options. We are the second largest economic-impacting airport system in the state—including the Chicago Airport System. PIA is the fourth largest economic-impacting airport in the state behind O’Hare, Midway and Moline (based on the 2000 State of Illinois Division of Aviation Economic Impact Study). Both Peoria airports play an important role in our economy in and around the greater Peoria area. Together, both airports contribute over $328 million to the local economy.
With additional seat capacity coming on board in 2007 and new cities to be announced, the potential to increase passenger activity at the Greater Peoria Regional Airport is very promising. Our market is very strong. In fact, it is the strongest in central Illinois. This is possible because of our economic base and the continued upward trend in business development on a local and global scale—PIA has the longest runway outside O’Hare; we have 24-hour FAA air traffic control services; we are in close proximity to interstate highway; we are a U.S. Port of Entry with Customs services; we are the home of the 182nd Airlift Command that was recently named an outstanding Air Force Unit; commercial airline activity includes five airlines serving six cities (with more to come) and we have two commercial cargo carriers handling more freight than any other downstate airport.
What special preparations were needed for President Bush’s arrival when he visited in January?
The Greater Peoria Airport Authority was honored to have the President of the United States land at PIA. Our staff worked very closely with the Secret Service, White House Advance Team, the 182nd Airlift Command and local officials to make the operation a smooth one. We are not at liberty to discuss the details of the preparation due to security issues.
There are more travelers today than ever before, despite terrorism threats, etc. How will the airline industry address the growing business and leisure travel industry?
There are more people using the air transportation system today than in any other period in time. Despite the additional security measures, people need to fly. Our economy is global and the cost to the consumer to fly commercially is more affordable with the introduction of low fare carriers like Allegiant Air. We have seen a major shift in capacity as fuel costs continue to rise for airlines. Airlines are parking airplanes and decreasing capacity. This allows the airlines to reduce their cost per available seat mile and increase load factors—seats available for occupancy versus seats occupied. However, with fewer seats available for the consumer and demand at record levels, it is becoming harder for the airlines to accommodate passengers when abnormal operations occur. To re-accommodate displaced passengers in an over-crowded system is very difficult to contend with. This is just one example of the problems of reducing labor costs and decreasing capacity. There are fewer planes, less seats and less airline employees available to the customer.
How is PIA different from the other airports in which you’ve worked?
I have worked at nine different airports, including PIA and 3MY. Each airport has its own set of characteristics that make it different than the next. However, each airport has it strengths and weaknesses. Both PIA and 3MY are very unique airports. They both serve the community in different ways.
What else is in the works for PIA?
We hope to continue extending our services and expanding our flight offerings. Each of our airlines has seen some expansion in the past year, and we hope to continue that trend. We now offer direct service to eight destinations from Peoria. We recently announced new service to Detroit on Northwest Airlines. Beginning August 21, Northwest will offer two daily jet departures using the 50-seat regional jet. We’re also very excited that Allegiant Air will resume nonstop service to Orlando/Sanford this November, with flights to be offered on Monday and Friday.
Are there misperceptions by the public regarding the airport and/or flight operations in general?
The biggest misperception is the dependency of our airlines. Granted, our airport is Chicago-dependent—half of our flights and half of our daily seats go to Chicago O’Hare—and O’Hare is statistically one of the most unreliable airports in the U.S. Our passengers think they will always have a problem with getting back to Peoria on the last flight of the night from O’Hare. I hear from our passengers that they are always cancelled coming home on the last flight of the night. In fact, statistically, the last flights arriving to Peoria from Chicago are the most reliable of all the flights. Those flights arrive 93 percent of the time (Year To Date). The other 7 percent YTD were due to winter storms. The same flights in 2006 arrived 93.7 percent of the time.
What are your hobbies outside of work?
I have several hobbies outside work. Aside from my passion and love of airplanes and aviation, I love working out in the gym, cooking Italian food, landscaping and spending time with my family. IBI