San Luis Obispo airport manager to take charge of Columbus Airport starting Oct. 1

Richard Howell
Richard Howell

The Columbus Airport has hired a new director, Richard Howell, who is now general manager of San Luis Obispo County Airports in California. He starts Oct. 1, replacing longtime director Mark Oropeza, who retired suddenly in March.

Howell, 57, said via phone that he’s “very excited” about coming to Columbus and taking the reins of an airport that has had its ups and downs through the years, with air carriers coming and going.

American Airlines pulled out of Columbus in June, with the city losing flights to and from the international airport in Dallas/Fort Worth, Texas. Delta Air Lines is the sole carrier now.

“When I came here in 2008, American and Delta both pulled out of the market the month that I arrived. So I’ve been there and done that,” Howell said with a laugh. “I think one of the reasons that the (Columbus Airport Commission) selected me is I do have a lot of air service development background, and I’ve got contacts with the airlines, people I know and people I can talk to.”

Robert W. O’Brien, a consultant with Blue River, Wisc.-based Airport Management Services and Support LLC, has served as interim director since Oropeza’s departure and while the airport commission searched for a successor. He plans to return to Wisconsin once Howell arrives.

“After this is over, I’m headed back home to my selective retirement on the Wisconsin River,” said O’Brien, who assists airports occasionally in situations such as that in Columbus. He’s also executive director of the Wisconsin Airport Managers Association.

Howell has been in the airport industry more than two decades, the last five in San Luis Obispo, which is situated near the California coast between Los Angeles and San Francisco. He is responsible for two county airports.

The major commercial facility there, San Luis Obispo County Regional Airport, is served by United Airlines and US Airways. The airport had more than 131,000 passenger boardings in 2012.

That compares to roughly 60,000 passenger boardings, or enplanements, at Columbus Airport last year. Delta has four flights to and from Atlanta each day, typically increasing that to five flights daily during the summer. The Columbus boarding total for 2012 also included the American numbers, which were about 16,500 boardings.

Howell spent more than 12 years in the U.S. Air Force, leaving in 1991 after volunteering to participate in a troop reduction-in-force. Before San Luis Obispo, he was director of aviation at Waco Regional Airport in Texas, a job he held for five years.

Columbus Airport Commission chairwoman Sherry Goodrum said Howell “rose to the top” of the candidate list because of his past experience and expertise in growing the San Luis Obispo market after American and Delta exited the picture there. Florida-based ADK Executive Search, which specializes in airport management jobs, narrowed the field down to 10 and then a final four before Howell’s selection.

“Richard brought to the table a great variety of experience,” she said. “He has experience not only with general aviation, but also with airline recruitment ... He was able to recruit seats back. That was something that caught my eye because we’re in that exact same situation.”

Goodrum said Howell will serve as the airport director, but will not be public safety director as Oropeza had been doing. The former director and city employee retired at age 57 from his $128,492 per year job under a public safety pension that allowed him to draw more than $61,000 annually immediately. He had been at the airport since November 1986.

Goodrum said Howell’s three-year contract will pay him $125,000 annually.

Howell is accredited by the American Association of Airport Executives, something the commission was looking for in its new director, she said.

“I feel like we’re getting somebody that knows what it’s like to run something a little bit larger (than Columbus Airport), with more operations,” Goodrum said of Howell’s experience in San Luis Obispo. “So it’s like trying to step up the operation that we have.”

Howell, a native of Santa Barbara, Calif., earned a bachelor’s of science degree in professional aeronautics from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. He has specialized training in airport security, the commission said, and is a licensed private pilot.

“It’s a great airport,” Howell said of Columbus, where he will run a full-service facility that offers both commercial airline and general aviation services. The airport has its own police and fire operations, a restaurant and a stable of car rental companies operating there. “I just want to be able to build on that ... and take it to the next level, and move on to bigger and brighter things. There’s so much potential there.”

Columbus Airport suffered through the years as more and more travelers opted to either drive themselves 98 miles to Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, or take Groome Transportation, a shuttle service that has flourished. Frequent flight delays to and from Columbus, along with reports of lost or misplaced baggage, did not help the airport in the eyes of the traveling public.

O’Brien acknowledged there are “huge challenges” in the Columbus market, but said there are some excellent possibilities awaiting Howell.

“I think there’s a great opportunity to double, triple, maybe even quadruple the number of passengers going through this airport,” he said. “I’m not talking over decades. I’m talking about in the foreseeable future. It’s more a matter of mobilizing the community into a single consumer voice, and having the airport leverage that on behalf of the regional community and get you guys some more opportunities. In turn, that gets more jobs, greater economic impact, etc.”

During Oropeza’s tenure, 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.

Columbus Airport, located at 3250 West Britt David Rd., has an annual budget of roughly $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.

Howell said he and wife, Deborah, are looking forward to purchasing a home in Columbus. The couple also will be closer to family in Kentucky.

“We’re really looking forward to relocating back to that (Southeast) area,” he said.