Palm Springs International Airport

Monday, March 28, 2005
Attacks on airport director ignore managerial realities
By Ken Sherman
The Palm Springs (CA) Desert Sun

As a member of the Palm Springs International Airport Commission for the last three years, it seems that certain recent events need to be addressed to clarify how management of the airport is actually accomplished. First, let me say that the Palm Springs International Airport is a critical component to the economic well-being of the entire Coachella Valley. With the recent surge in tourism after the 9/11 drop-off, and with new passenger records being set almost every month for the last nine months, it is just as critical that the airport plan for and be in a position to handle this increase in traffic in both a safe and efficient manner.

Second, the airport is a department within the purview of the city of Palm Springs. That means the Palm Springs City Council retains the ultimate decision-making power relative to all airport budgets and operations.

The airport staff develops those budgets and manages the day-to-day operations in accordance with all the relative requirements and restrictions imposed by the city, county, state, Federal Aviation Administration and other governmental entities. Approval of all airport functions comes specifically from the Palm Springs City Council.

What is the function of the Palm Springs International Airport Commission? It is made up of 17 members, of which eight are from the city of Palm Springs (including the chairman), individual members from eight other valley cities, and a representative from Riverside County.

The primary responsibility of the commission is to review the plans of the airport staff relative to decisions that must be made by the Palm Springs City Council.

Instead of council members evaluating the details of each and every item relative to airport operations and finance, the commission performs that function for them.

Meeting on the first Wednesday of every month, the commission reviews all the items that require City Council action and either recommends approval or sends the specific item back to the airport staff for additional information or changes.

The public has an opportunity at the beginning of every meeting to make comments on any subject relative to the airport.

After these comments, there is a published agenda for each of the items to be considered at that meeting.

The airport staff typically does an excellent job in assembling the items to be discussed, and can almost always answer any questions posed by the commission members. As a result, approval is usually recommended, though sometimes there can be “spirited” debate and commission voting is never a rubber stamp.

It should also be noted that the City Council has on occasion overruled recommendations made by the staff and concurred with the commission.

What must be kept in mind here is that all commission members have the economic well-being of the Coachella Valley in mind whenever making those recommendations.

At the same time, the commission also has a significant fiduciary responsibility to ensure that the airport “pays its own way” and is financially self-sustaining – it cannot be a financial liability for a city that has its own financial difficulties.

That means sometimes going along with the recommendations of the airport staff even though they may not be popular with all segments of the public and/or airport users.

As such, it should be noted that recently there have been a couple of inappropriate verbal attacks on Richard Walsh, the airport director, for his comments regarding the need for certain actions the airport staff felt was necessary.

Although it is always the prerogative for individuals to disagree with the actions and/or policies of public entities and/or individuals, making it personal is totally unacceptable.

Richard has been here for over a year now, and in that time has made excellent progress towards making the Palm Springs International Airport a showcase for how an airport should grow in this post-9/11 environment.

Al Smoot, the former airport director, did a fantastic job in getting the airport physically ready for all the security requirements that had to be implemented, but now it is mandatory to make the airport even more attractive to the airlines from a marketing point of view so they will be more inclined to add flights that will help our valley continue to grow.

This has to be done in a way that keeps the airport financially viable.

Verbal attacks on the director, staff or the commission are not the way to get a point across.

Ken Sherman is commissioner of the Palm Springs International Airport.