Incoming DFW Airport CEO says no big changes are planned

Posted Friday, Sep. 06, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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The incoming chief executive at Dallas/Fort Worth Airport says he doesn’t plan to be a change agent, but rather wants to keep the airport’s momentum going by completing terminal renovations and expanding international service.

Virgin Australia executive Sean Donohue made his first appearance at a DFW Airport board meeting on Thursday, a month before he is slated to take over as CEO for retiring Jeff Fegan. He plans to start his new job sometime in October.

During the meeting, he heard presentations on possible cost overruns in the airport’s $2.3 billion terminal redevelopment project and growth in international passengers, which was up 11 percent in July. Afterward, he sat down with the reporters to discuss his experience as an airline executive at United Airlines and Virgin Australia and his goals at D/FW.

On why he took the job at DFW Airport: “This is a great airport. It’s got a worldwide reputation for being one of the best-run airports. After it was announced in Australia, I had a gentleman who had just joined Virgin Australia that had worked for Qantas and had negotiated the deal when Qantas came here to fly and his comment was that the negotiations and everything to do with Dallas-Fort Worth Airport was one of the best-run negotiations he’s been through. So it’s got a great reputation.”

On challenges he faces in his new position: “Obviously there is a lot of good momentum, so continuing that momentum. Dallas/Fort Worth Airport is obviously a huge economic engine for the community and I want to make sure I’m visible in the community and continue all the programs to support the community. Specifically, TRIP [Terminal Renewal and Improvement Program] is obviously a priority. Very, very important project for the airport.”

On focusing on international growth: “As you saw in the presentation this morning, international growth has been very strong … Asia and the Pacific is a top priority because of the growth, specifically China, and obviously the airport has been working hard on that. Having lived outside the country and just seeing firsthand when you go up into those countries the pace and the acceleration of growth and the future planning that’s on the books, obviously that’s where the focus will continue to be.”

On the American Airlines-US Airways merger: “My view is it’s a pro-competitive merger. United and Continental have been allowed to merge. Delta and Northwest have been allowed to merge. I think it makes good sense. I think obviously it would be a benefit for Dallas-Fort Worth and North Texas but I would also say that American is a very strong airline no matter what happens. They’ve gone through, as they say in Australia, the hard yards and they are a strong airline. My opinion is it would be best if the merger goes through but that’s to be decided and American either way is a very strong airline and it’s great to have them as our key partner at DFW.”

On potential cost overruns in the $2.3 billion terminal redevelopment project: “My view on hearing the briefing this morning was the planning has been very solid. Obviously in the last four years, since the initial program was put together, there’s been a lot of market changes, there have been other impacts to the program. What I was most impressed about this morning was the transparency. It was very thorough briefing. They laid everything out there. They had a lot of details... When you get into massive projects like this having that type of transparency I think is absolutely critical.”

On what he plans to do differently from retiring CEO Jeff Fegan: “I’m not coming in here to be a change agent. It’s been very stable. It’s been successful. I view it as a new set of eyes. And anytime you have a leadership change, I think it’s good to have a new set of eyes. Doesn’t mean that everything I see is going to be good or bad it’s just a different perspective, a different lens. And I’m a really, really strong believer in the customer experience. And having been part of the Virgin brand for the last three years, I’ve learned a lot on just how critical it is to put the customer first and ensure their experience is as good as it can be, so that would be my focus.”

On his experience as a customer at DFW: “My experience in the few times I’ve been through DFW … is very efficient. To be able to get around the terminal so easily and efficient I think is positive. I give credit to the vision of the airport in terms of, from gate to curb is what, a couple hundred feet? You don’t see that in many airports throughout the world. The people as I travel through the airport are extraordinarily friendly and helpful. Having said that I think TRIP is absolutely critical because there is no question there are parts of the terminals that need to be updated and refreshed.”

On the Wright Amendment restrictions which end in 2014: “I’m familiar with the Wright Amendment, I know in 2014 most of the restrictions come off... I view that more as an airline adjustment or an airline competitive decision that needs to be made. Again, when I look at DFW and I look at the markets served, not only the markets but the breadth of service in the markets, when the Wright Amendment comes off it gets more competition and competition is good. I’m pro-competition. But at the end of the day, it’s going to be the airlines that make the decision on what the true impact will be and I don’t see it having a negative impact on DFW in terms of service.”

Andrea Ahles, 817-390-7631 Twitter: @Sky_Talk

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