This afternoon, the D/FW board -- most of it anyway -- discussed the Channel 11 expose last week on airport executive living the life of luxury on the taxpayers' dime. The story went back and forth, as recounted here and here and here. So today the Finance Committee heard DFW CEO Jeff Fegan's primer on selling DFW abroad.
The basics go something like this:
As soon as a carrier somewhere in the world puts in a major order for new jets, it sets off a competition that often spans the globe. Obviously, since it takes years for the planes to be built, delivered and put into service, there is a time frame in which numerous people vie for the affections of the carrier. These days, the hot markets are Asia, the Middle East, India and parts of Europe. By the time a carrier has the planes to put into service, usually the routes are already decided. What you hope for as an airport is that you can cultivate an identity within the carrier's officials -- some little kernel of interest -- that will get you on the list of possible routes. This can often require wining and dining of officials -- and the presence of top executives and board members to secure meetings with prospective carriers. So many airports go abroad -- to conferences, to events -- in order to network, to get on the list, so maybe you have a shot at a route -- because bringing in just one route can mean $100 million to $300 million in economic benefit. If it means you have to spend several tens of thousands of dollars in gifts to foreign dignitaries, or for dinners, or for business meetings at expensive hotels, so be it, that's part of selling DFW on the international market. (And selling DFW also means selling the region, which benefits everyone locally.)
The vast majority of the board supported this view of what the airport is doing with its business development efforts and even encouraged EVP Marketing Joe Lopano to step it up.
Member Forrest Smith: "The public has the right to know where the money is spent." He said reporting on the airport is often fair and accurate. He said the Ch. 11 story was neither. However, it can be used as a learning tool about how much transparency is needed at the airport to ensure people have confidence in what the airport is doing.
Member Jeff Wentworth: The airport should show in its documentation where plane tickets are purchased at economy levels and then upgraded. (Ch. 11 reported that Fegan had traveled first class when in fact he had purchased a full-fare coach seat then used upgrades to fly first class.)
Member John Loza: (to Lopano) "During tough economic times, you have to be even more aggressive selling this airport." As for the Ch. 11 report, he said, "I don't think we have anything to apologize for."
Member Francisco Hernandez (on Ch. 11 report): "It was a hatchet job." He said it was important not to be over-defensive by over-explaining what the airport does.
Member Bernice Washington: "The people are pissed -- fair or not." She said the report raised myriad questions that called into question the credibility of the airport executives. She said the accuracy of the report was secondary because the public believed the report to be true. "People perceive we have violated the spirit of the law." As a result, she asked questions about Fegan's salary, executive pay structure, employee car allowances and other issues raised by the Ch. 11 story. It was subsequently explained to the Dallas member that the board she sits on sets Fegan's salary and his review would be coming up in December.
Chairwoman Lillie Biggins said it was important to continue to market DFW, the airport and the region, to the rest of the world rather than "hunker down."
This echoed Fegan's remarks about not having a "bunker mentality" as a result of tough economic times.
As a result of the Ch. 11 investigation, an internal audit was conducted by Rob Darby of how the airport is adhering to board policy. While there were no egregious or systematic misapplications of the policy, Darby did suggest to staff that better documentation would be necessary to keep airport expeditures transparent.
As previously noted on this blog, there was no OBA (official board action) associated with this discussion, so the board did not alter its policy in any way.
It will be interesting to see if that's the end of it, or whether the mayors of owner cities Fort Worth and Dallas have their own two cents on the issue come Thursday morning.
FYI: Ch. 11 did not show up for the meeting, although Ch. 8 did, as well as the usual -- Terry Maxon with the DMN and, of course, your friendly neighborhood Star-Telegram.
- Bryon Okada