Update: Longtime Columbus Airport director Mark Oropeza retires suddenly

The sudden departure of longtime Columbus Airport director Mark Oropeza will trigger a nationwide search for a replacement, a process that could take up to two months, the airport’s commission chief said Monday.

“I think we’re going to be looking for a lot of different things, someone who’s got experience dealing with airlines, someone that can manage our general aviation side of the field. We’re actually in the beginning stages of all of that,” said Sherry Goodrum, chairwoman of the Columbus Airport Commission, adding a search firm will be hired while the facility is run by Robert O’Brien, interim director.

Terming Oropeza’s exit a personnel matter, Goodrum declined to discuss the circumstances concerning his decision Friday to leave the airport. It is being called a retirement, which takes effect April 1.

Oropeza, a city employee, could not be reached Monday for comment. He had been with Columbus Airport since November 1986, having arrived here from DeKalb Peachtree Airport in Atlanta, where he had served nearly eight years as assistant airport director.

During his tenure here, which included deregulation of the airline industry, Columbus Airport saw its passenger levels rise and fall, with an overall trend lower. Several airlines came and went through the years — USAir Express, Northwest Airlink, Gulfstream International, Atlantic Southeast Airlines and American Eagle.

Earlier this month, American Airlines — which had resumed service to and from Columbus in the summer of 2010 — said it was pulling the plug on its four daily flights — two each way — between the city and Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport effective June 12.

Declining passenger counts and profits were apparently part of the reason for the move by American, which is looking to exit bankruptcy with a pending mega-merger between it and US Airways. American Airlines boarded about 16,500 passengers in Columbus last year, down from 17,500 in 2011.

Delta Air Lines, which remains in the market, currently has four flights to and from Atlanta each day. It had 43,500 boardings last year, down as well from 44,300 boardings in 2011. Delta typically bumps its schedule to five flights into and out of Columbus during the summer.

“It’s disappointing because you go through all of that effort,” Oropeza said in a previous interview about his recruitment of American Airlines. “But at the end of the day, it’s their call, not ours. So we’ll just redouble our efforts. We’re not going to say die. We’re not going to go, ‘My god, the world’s coming to an end.’ We’ve been through this before. We’ll just keep on plugging away.”

Minutes of the Columbus Airport Commission’s meeting on Jan. 23 indicate Oropeza confirmed to the panel’s members that the leases with both Delta and American Airlines were “signed and sealed,” each for four years.

Goodrum said American Airlines breaking its lease had nothing to do with Oropeza leaving the airport. She said there was nothing anyone could have done to prevent the airline’s departure other than somehow get more people to use the commercial service to and from Dallas.

“It was a surprise to us because we were under the impression that they were doing well based on what we had been told,” she said. “But they also did not shut the door to coming back. They personally sent someone here to tell us in an effort to maintain the relationship, and they stressed it was not a community issue. It strictly was their internal dollars and cents.”

Columbus Airport, located at 3250 West Britt David Rd., has an annual budget of just over $6 million, Goodrum said, with a staff of about 50 people. That does not include Federal Aviation Administration and Transportation Security Administration workers at the facility.

Goodrum said the airport will continue trying to attract new airlines from different market hubs, while also working to change the perception that Columbus Airport is plagued by poor service and late flights. She said it also is ready to hop on board the effort to launch rail service to and from Columbus should it eventually become a reality.

Goodrum, who has known Oropeza personally for years, and has worked with him on the commission since 2006, thanked him for his quarter century of service.

“He’s been there a long time,” she said. “Airlines, of course, have come and gone while he’s been there. But he was instrumental in getting American to come back in. He’s always done a good job at getting funds coming in for FAA projects, which is how we get most of our capital projects funded. There’s been a lot of growth during his time.”

Aside from Goodrum, the Columbus Airport Commission is comprised of Kerry W. Hand, Winfield G. Flanagan, Don D. Cook and Thomas G.O. Forsberg.