December 8, 2005 in Business

New airport chief makes a graceful landing

Bert Caldwell The Spokesman-Review
 

There’s no “I” in O’Neal.

Prod Gratton O’Neal “Neal” Sealock II, and he owns up to a role in resolving the first foreign policy crisis to overtake a young George W. Bush presidency. But, as he does when discussing his new responsibilities at Spokane International Airport, the retired Army brigadier general quickly starts inserting the word “team” and deflecting credit to others.

Of course, one week into the job, just knowing the names of half your staff would be an achievement. And it’s true that the airport board, former executive director John Morrison and interim director Irv Reed developed a strategic plan that looks 20 years into the future. A total makeover of the rotunda will soon be under way. New contracts have been made with food and retail vendors, and security screening areas will be moved. The ticketing concourse has already received a makeover.

At the airport’s southwest corner, concrete pours on the 264-foot-tall control tower are nearly completed, with steel work still to be completed. The $14 million project is 20 days ahead of schedule. When completed, controllers will handle traffic into both Fairchild Air Force Base and SIA.

For the three years 2005 though 2007, projects worth a total $54.7 million are planned, all paid for with airport fees or other sources that do not include local taxes.

Sealock says his first important tasks will be assuring all the terminal projects are finished in time for the State Farm U.S. Figure Skating Championships scheduled for January 2007 in Spokane. But he wants to keep the disruption to ongoing operations, and the discomfort of arriving and departing passengers, to a minimum.

The remodeled terminal should convey to every new arrival the Inland Northwest’s quality of life, he says.

Although he has spent most of the last 30 years moving around the U.S. and the world as his military commitments dictated, the Inland Northwest lifestyle is one Sealock has known for most of his life.

Sealock’s father in 1965 moved the family to Fairchild, where he was on a team that established the base’s highly regarded survival school. A suite in the school’s billeting facility has since been named after Chief Master Sgt. Gratton Sealock.

General Sealock and his wife, Donna (Inman), graduated from Medical Lake High School in 1970. Members of both their families remain in the area, and they have visited as often as his career – begun in the ROTC program at Eastern Washington University – would allow.

His postings have included command of the Army Aviation Center at Ft. Rucker, Ala. – he flies airplanes and helicopters – and defense attaché tours in Canberra, Australia, as well as Hong Kong and Beijing. In April 2001, he was in the Chinese capital when a U.S. spy plane and Chinese fighter collided over the South China Sea. The Chinese pilot died. The U.S. plane made an emergency landing on Hainan Island, where Sealock, who speaks Mandarin Chinese, helped negotiate the release of the plane and its crew.

That kind of high-level international exposure was just one of several positives for the airport board, which selected Sealock from among more than 60 candidates.

Chairman Dave Brukardt says the board hopes Sealock can bring the airport’s passenger and freight-handling capabilities, business park and acres of undeveloped land – not to mention landing fees half those of Seattle and Portland – to the attention of potential foreign partners. The airport also has an underutilized foreign trade zone, and the potential to become part of an intermodal freight facility that would capitalize on its convenient access to Interstate 90 and railroads.

“My task with the board is to expand those venues, and that’s what I intend to do,” Sealock says.

The pilot in him adds Felts Field to the community’s list of aviation assets.

The airport, he says, must be “relevant” to the region as its gateway, and an engine for economic development.

Brukardt notes that Sealock has walked the airport and met with many of its 150 employees. His ability to win their respect, and play an important role in the Spokane community, all weighed in Sealock’s favor as job candidates were assessed.

The airport needs a champion, he says. “It’s truly one of the gems of the region.”

For Sealock, who retired from the Army in May, the airport’s need for an executive director was pure serendipity. He and his wife were already planning to return to Spokane.

“It’s truly coming home,” he says.

Spokane business leaders trying to encourage talented Spokane natives to return to the Inland Northwest could not have asked for a better example.

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