The four men contending to be the next executive director at Tampa International Airport agree on a few things. For one, they all like the airport.
"It's a world-class facility; you're a leader," said Kent George, who runs Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport.
"An excellent customer service rating that I envied," said Lester Robinson, former boss at Detroit Metropolitan Airport.
But they also unanimously identify a well-publicized weak spot: recruiting airlines to start new routes, especially to international destinations.
On Wednesday, reporters got a window into the thinking of the four finalists for TIA's top job and at least one of the people who will make the choice. Admittedly, it was a small window.
Candidates began the first of two days of one-on-one interviews with members of the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority board. Only board member Steven Burton insisted that his questioning take place with reporters in attendance.
The doors were closed when authority chairman Al Austin conducted his interview. Three other members, including Tampa Mayor Pam Iorio and Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan, quiz the candidates today.
Iorio proposed that the board also question the finalists in a public meeting. She circulated a memo Wednesday in which the head of the airport's executive search, Michael Bell of SpencerStuart, advised members to meet with candidates only in private.
The field includes two men who worked at airports for nearly all of their adult lives: Kent George and Kevin Dillon, chief executive of T.F. Green Airport in Providence, R.I.
Robinson spent most of his professional career in accounting, finance and government. Joseph Lopano, an executive vice president at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, worked in various airline executive positions before joining the airport.
So how will the board decide?
Reading Burton wasn't easy. He asked candidates to walk him through their professional backgrounds, complete with names of supervisors and subordinates. They gave their top professional accomplishments and explained their management styles. Here are their selling points:
George, 63: As Pittsburgh's airport boss, he recruited discount carriers Southwest, AirTran and JetBlue after US Airways went bankrupt and drastically cut back its huge hub. At Fort Lauderdale, he helped bring in international service from Spirit Airlines and Condor. "I can't work miracles," George said. "The aviation authority can't work miracles if the community's not behind you."
Dillon, 54: Has extensive experience working with community and business groups from his efforts to expand the Providence airport runway and other facilities. "It's time for the airport to (ask) what bigger role it can play in the community,'' he said.
Robinson, 58: Touted his efforts to boost customer service at previously wretched Detroit Metro. It won first place among large airports for customer satisfaction in this year's J.D. Power and Associates survey. "You probably are going to have to aim at being a hub for a low-cost carrier … that might have destinations in the Caribbean,'' he said about gaining new international flights.
Lopano, 55: The only finalist not to run an airport, Lopano worked for years at Continental Airlines and other carriers. He's also the only one who has sat on the airline side in negotiations over new airline routes. "The cleanliness of the (TIA) terminals is wonderful," he said. "If your lawn is mowed and everything looks clean, (people think) you've got a good operation. You really have it going on in that sense."
The board is scheduled to make a choice Oct. 7 to replace former executive director Louis Miller, who turned in his resignation six months ago. On Monday, he was named to run Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International, the world's busiest airport.
Steve Huettel can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3384.