Departing airport chief is leaving his mark


Rick Crider, CEO of Gainesville Regional Airport, poses on one of the airport's three new passenger boarding bridges as passengers coming from Charlotte leave a plane in this July 2005 file photo.

DOUG FINGER/Sun file photo
Published: Thursday, January 4, 2007 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 3, 2007 at 12:00 a.m.

To the casual passenger, changes to Gainesville Regional Airport when CEO Rick Crider leaves after five years may not be that obvious.

Facts

LEAVIN' ON A JET PLANE

Passenger flights out of Gainesville Regional Airport:
2001:
121,152
2002:
135,106
2003:
124,727
2004:
141,213
2005:
173,293

Those who hoped for the amenities of a major airport may even be disappointed. But those familiar with the day-to-day operations say Crider has ushered in a significant turnaround in getting the facilities in shape and paving the way for general aviation business.

Crider leaves his position in February, but many of his labors will bear fruit long afterward as plans go forward to renovate or construct facilities.

Crider resigned in December effective Feb. 17 to work for R.W. Armstrong, an Indianapolis-based consulting firm specializing in airport development.

He will serve in a newly created position as vice president of airport development and management services. The firm was awarded more than $2.9 million in contracts to design Gainesville airport projects during Crider's tenure.

Facility upgrades

"He came into a pretty disorganized situation," said Joe Dunlap, vice chairman of the Gainesville-Alachua County Regional Airport Authority. "There was a lot of structural stuff that wasn't taken care of. He made tremendous progress in that time."

The renovation of the airport's passenger terminal, which is scheduled to be completed by the end of next year, is one of the most visible accomplishments of his tenure.

Early on, he oversaw the repaving of the primary runway. Passenger bridges — or jetways— now provide cover to board planes. Runway lights are being fixed.

Still in some stage of development are $187 million in projects over the next 20 years, including a new entrance road, construction of new T-hangars for small planes and larger corporate sized hangars, facilities to house rental car companies at the airport and moving air-cargo holders and the air traffic control tower.

Crider said airport business moves slowly. He said the process starts with a vision formulated by the community, city officials and nine authority members with diverse opinions before moving to design and funding with approval from state and federal bureaucracies.

Authority Chairman Peter Johnson said the new entrance road has been in the master plan for 20 years and was reaffirmed in the latest update that has been 3 years in the making.

The airport also privatized its fueling and ground services during Crider's tenure. The airport previously contracted with Flight Line of Tallahassee, at break-even or a loss of $40,000 a year to the airport.

University Air Center won the bid to offer the services at a net gain to the airport of $180,000 a year, and added charter services, flight training, maintenance and repair services.

Passenger concerns

Cosmetic changes aside, passengers will judge the airport on the availability of flights, destinations and cost of tickets.

When Crider came on board in February 2002, Delta offered flights to Atlanta and Charlotte, N.C., and now Continental Connection also serves Tampa and Miami.

When 2006 began, Northwest Airlines flew to Memphis before pulling out of the market in May after 19 months when it retired DC9s and left less established markets.

Northwest took with it the computers, employees and ground support that also served Continental. Jason Berger, local station manager for Continental Connection, said Crider lobbied his boss to keep Continental here, offering to provide gate signs and some ground equipment.

"Continental decided to stay. Rick Crider was one of the big reasons for that," Berger said.

Although ticket costs are still higher than at major airports, Crider said the gap is less. For one thing, he said the airlines have realized they can get the local passenger to pay $100 extra here instead of driving to Jacksonville, but not $800 extra.

Authority member Mac McEachern said Crider has not done enough to increase passengers and reduce rates. The airport could lower airline costs on the ground for fuel, counter space and landing fees. The resulting lower rates, as well as better advertising and lower parking costs would lure more passengers.

"We need to reduce rates and increase destinations and I don't think Crider has led us in the direction to reach those," McEachern said.

Johnson said the only incentive airlines look at is the number of passengers in a market. He spoke with Delta about a New York flight, but they wanted 120 passengers a day instead of the current 50 heading that way.

"We would like to see Continental Express come in and do a flight from here to Houston or here to Newark and I know Rick Crider has been working on that," Berger said.

Crider said more flights and airlines will come to Gainesville with growth, but that is made difficult by the current demographics and proximity of Tampa, Jacksonville and especially Orlando with its cheap and plentiful flights.

Eclipse and DayJet

With the uncertainty surrounding the airline industry, Crider has directed a move to expand general aviation services.

The airport was named the Gainesville Area Chamber of Commerce's 2006 Business of the Year for Small Business Expansion for luring jet manufacturer Eclipse Aviation and later DayJet air taxi service, which would use Eclipse planes, with a combined potential of 260 jobs.

However, New Mexico-based Eclipse continues to fall behind in its production schedule, now saying it will deliver its first jet this month. But with production and legal hurdles, authority members' outlooks vary from cautious optimism to outright skepticism that Eclipse will be able to deliver.

At stake is more than $5 million in loans the airport took out to build production facilities.

McEachern said the news gets more grim regarding Eclipse's ability to produce, but Johnson said he's still confident they will come through, and Dunlap said glitches are common when a new product is brought to market.

"It's a phenomenal opportunity if it works," Crider said. "So many communities are lining up to get a shot at DayJet."

What's next

Dunlap said part of Crider's legacy is leaving the airport in good hands, which he did by hiring Allan Penksa as his assistant. Penksa becomes acting airport director Jan. 15, and Johnson said he is a strong candidate to take over permanently.

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