Wood retiring after 18 years piloting airport

Epilogue:
AUGUST 25, 2014 6:00 AM • BY MATT OLBERDING / LINCOLN JOURNAL STAR
When John Wood took over as executive director at the Lincoln Airport in September 1996, he
already had an inkling about one event that would have a huge effect on its future.
Wood was operations director at Eppley Airfield when Southwest Airlines brought its low-fare
model to Omaha in 1995 — a model that tended to put pressure on other airlines and on nearby
airports.
“Having come over from Omaha, I knew if you were going to measure success (in air traffic
numbers), it would be hanging on to what you have,” Wood said.
The Lincoln Airport did that and more for a few years under Wood’s leadership, increasing its
annual passenger count from 484,000 in 1994 to an all-time high of 552,000 in 1999.
But then came the day Wood says put it on the road to declining passenger numbers: the Sept.
11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

The attacks that killed more than 3,000 people in the four hijacked planes and in the buildings
hit by three of them changed the dynamic of the industry, he said.
“That’s when we saw the passenger numbers really start to go down,” he said. “And that string
just kept up for years.”
While the numbers stabilized nationally and recovered after a few years, they never did in
Lincoln.
After that all-time high in 1999, numbers dropped slightly in 2000 and then more precipitously:
to 464,000 in 2001, 380,000 in 2006, and a three-decade low of 270,000 by 2012.
Passenger counts rebounded slightly last year and have remained steady so far this year.
Wood, who will retire as executive director this week after 18 years on the job, said he’s happy
to be going out on somewhat of a high note, with passenger counts up and a new daily flight to
Atlanta starting next week.
But he concedes that air service is his biggest disappointment.
“There’s no question. To the average man on the street it’s the most important thing about the
airport, but it’s the thing we have the least control of.

The airport doesn’t get to set schedules or prices, he said; that’s all up to the airlines.
And then, of course, there’s that elephant in the room — or perhaps a more apt analogy is that
it’s the 747 in the room: Omaha.
Having a much larger airport with many more choices of destinations and airlines within an
hour’s drive is a challenge, to say the least, Wood said.
However, “We’re not the only community in the country that’s got that problem.”
He cited Colorado Springs, which saw its passenger numbers drop to a 22-year low last year.
The city is about 70 miles from Denver.
Topeka, Kansas, which is about 70 miles from Kansas City, is losing its only commercial air
service Sept. 2 when United Airlines ends daily flights to Chicago.

“Lincoln is in that boat and always will be,” Wood said. “Omaha is there, and it isn’t going
away.”
That doesn’t mean Lincoln’s air service can’t get better, he said. The airport has had steady,
uninterrupted service to Chicago, Denver and Minneapolis for decades.
But it lost service to St. Louis in the early 2000s after TWA went bankrupt. In the past decade
the airport has added and lost service to Detroit, Memphis, Salt Lake City, Phoenix and
Atlanta.
The Atlanta service is coming back with a federal grant that ensures it will last for at least a
year.
Wood said he’s certain that if it is successful — meaning it gets high passenger counts —
Delta Air Lines will look long and hard at adding more flights. If it isn’t, he said it will make it that
much harder for Lincoln to attract new service.
Asked if he feels he and the airport administration have been unfairly criticized for Lincoln’s
inability to attract more air service, Wood said no. But he does think people assume the local
airport has much more control over that issue than it really does.

“I think it’s a misconception or a misunderstanding about how much influence we have or what
actions we can take,” he said.
What he does have a lot more control over is an area of the airport that’s had a lot more
success: its industrial park.
The airport earlier this year approved what is thought to be its largest capital budget ever for
fiscal year 2015: more than $40 million.
While some of that money will be spent on terminal and runway upgrades, a large portion is for
new buildings for Hexagon Lincoln and the Nebraska State Patrol, as well as for infrastructure
work related to a new area being developed on the north side of the Air Park industrial park.
The money spent on the Hexagon and State Patrol buildings will be paid back through leases.

Other companies that have expanded with new facilities in the industrial park recently are IAC
Acoustics and Sadoff Iron & Metal.
In fiscal year 2014, which ended June 30, revenue from the industrial park was nearly $5.3
million, up from $3.5 million in 2006.
Wood said the airport’s overall success in being an economic and job generator is what he’s
most proud of during his tenure.

Airport Authority Chairman John Hoppe Jr. is effusive in his praise of Wood, saying he always
worked for the benefit of the airport.
“He’s done a damn good job at everything he’s done,” he said.
Wood’s last day as director is Thursday, when he’ll lead his final Airport Authority board
meeting. But he’ll stay on in an advisory/consulting role to help David Haring ease into the job.
Haring comes from Cheyenne, Wyoming, the same airport Wood led before going to Omaha in
1989. Wood also spent time as airport manager in Winslow, Arizona, after getting out of the
Marine Corps, where he was a pilot.
He will head back out west in retirement, settling with his wife in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
But Wood, 65, said he’ll be back to Nebraska often because he has grandchildren in Papillion.
No word on whether he’ll fly into Lincoln or Omaha for those visits.

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