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Front & Center: Airport CEO focuses on what’s on the ground

Larry Krauter is CEO of Spokane Airports, public agency that manages Spokane International Airport, the adjacent business park and Felts Field in the Spokane Valley. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Larry Krauter is CEO of Spokane Airports, public agency that manages Spokane International Airport, the adjacent business park and Felts Field in the Spokane Valley. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

Larry Krauter fondly recalls flying Eastern Air Lines as a child.

“I couldn’t have been more than 5 years old. I remember being taken up to the cockpit, talking to the flight crew and getting my plastic wings.”

Air travel used to be “a really big deal,” said Krauter, CEO of Spokane Airports, the public agency that manages Spokane International Airport, the adjacent business park and Felts Field.

He looks forward to the day when it is pleasant, if not special.

To that end, the largest project in Spokane International’s history will begin next year. The airport’s two terminals will be renovated and expanded at a cost of $130 million to $160 million.

“It will take three, maybe four years,” Krauter predicts, “but it will make both these buildings work better together.”

During a recent interview, he discussed baseball, airline speed dating and wristwatches.

S-R: Where did you grow up?

Krauter: Northeast Ohio.

S-R: What were your interests?

Krauter: Aviation. My father traveled quite a bit, so during my formative years I was in airports a lot, either to meet him coming home or accompanying my parents on trips. I probably spent a small fortune on Testors model plane kits growing up.

S-R: What was your first job?

Krauter: I officiated Little League baseball games when I was 14.

S-R: What did you learn?

Krauter: That sometimes in life you need a thick skin.

S-R: What career did you envision?

Krauter: Something that combined aviation and public service. I attended Ohio State University and majored in aviation management.

S-R: Where did that lead?

Krauter: After interning with the Ohio DOT, building highway and bridge projects, my first airport job was in the planning department at Columbus International Airport. From there, I worked my way up in management. Before coming to Spokane, I was interim executive director at Lehigh Valley International Airport in Allentown, Pennsylvania.

S-R: Do you recall what you were doing September 11, 2001?

Krauter: I was the deputy executive director at Lehigh Valley. What’s interesting about 9/11 is that it happened to coincide with a very large gathering of airport executives. Most of the people in charge of airports that day were the No. 2 people, because their bosses were in Canada.

S-R: How did your job change after 9/11?

Krauter: Our priorities suddenly shifted 180 degrees. Instead of focusing on economic development and accommodating growth, security became a much bigger part of everything we did.

S-R: How has Spokane International Airport changed since you arrived seven years ago?

Krauter: What attracted me to Spokane was the incredible potential I saw. We’ve added a snow-removal-equipment storage building, new facilities for the parking department, a new fire station, and completely renovated the airfield. But what I’m most excited about is what we’ve been able to do with the people in the organization. They come to work understanding every job is important.

S-R: You’re currently adding parking spaces?

Krauter: Yes – 1,300 in addition to the 7,200 we already have. Those should be ready just ahead of Thanksgiving. Parking revenue is very important to the airport.

S-R: How much did parking bring in last year?

Krauter: Around $11.8 million.

S-R: What other improvements are in the pipeline?

Krauter: We’re building infrastructure for a gas station convenience store. That would primarily benefit people returning rental cars who want to fill the tank themselves rather than pay the much higher price rental companies charge. And rental companies really don’t want that business. They prefer to reduce the number of times employees have to touch a car.

S-R: Will you contract with a private concessionaire or staff it yourself?

Krauter: The idea is to make it attractive for a partner to come in, build the building and put in the gas station. If we don’t get interest, we might build and operate it ourselves.

S-R: What factors affect airport business?

Krauter: The general economy has a lot to do with how much we grow. During the recession, airlines cut capacity. Airports our size took disproportional cuts, and airlines were very cautious about adding capacity back. Our passenger capacity bottomed out in 2013, and we’ve been growing ever since.

S-R: How do you market Spokane to airlines?

Krauter: Each year, we go to a meeting with all the airlines, and it’s sort of like speed dating. We sign up for the airlines we want to talk to, they sign up for the airports they want to talk to, and we make a pitch to retain or build service. It’s highly competitive, with more than 230 communities trying to increase air service.

S-R: What are Spokane’s strengths and weaknesses in that competition?

Krauter: It depends on your point of view. We have the highest number of seats per capita among our peer airports, and also the lowest average air fare. If you’re a consumer, that’s wonderful. But from the airlines’ perspective, that could mean there’s too much capacity and not enough profit.

S-R: Are there limits to Spokane International’s potential growth?

Krauter: From an airfield perspective, no. We have enough land to support a parallel runway. But our terminal is currently running into constraints. We’ve had five years of forecasted growth occur just in the past year, so we’re running into bottlenecks. Parking is one, which we’re fixing. Security checkpoints are the other. Wait times have gone up because of physical constraints, as well as TSA’s limited ability to staff lines.

S-R: When Amazon’s fulfillment center opens in fall 2019, will the impact be immediate or gradual?

Krauter: Probably both. We may see a considerable increase on the air cargo side – FedEx and UPS. What could be more gradual depends on whether we get Prime Air (a conceptual drone-based delivery system currently in development by Amazon).

S-R: What’s your typical schedule?

Krauter: We operate 24/7, 365, so I’m always on call. I spend much of my time talking to the staff and getting involved in community affairs. I chair the West Plains-Airport Area PDA (Public Development Authority). I also spend a lot of time in the regulatory environment at the federal, state and local level. And I’m very active in our professional associations.

S-R: What do you like most about your job?

Krauter: Walking through the terminal and seeing reunions take place – particularly service members coming home to their families.

S-R: What do you like least?

Krauter: It’s becoming more and more difficult to satisfy the expectations placed on airports. We’re being pulled more into the business realm, yet still have a significant regulatory burden that shades everything we do.

S-R: Has the airport had any major setbacks since you took over?

Krauter: No. I think we’ve been on a constant improvement vector.

S-R: “Improvement vector.” You sound like a pilot.

Krauter: I’ve flown off and on for years, and fly pretty routinely now. I go out to Felts Field and fly with friends or rent an aircraft.

S-R: What went through your mind when you heard an airline employee at Sea-Tac with no pilot experience had commandeered an empty passenger plane?

Krauter: My first thought was how did that happen, and how would you troubleshoot something like that. Even though we have very good aviation security, some things are very difficult to predict.

S-R: Flying today is not the adventure it was when you were young, or even the relatively hassle-free experience it was two or three decades ago.

Krauter: Correct. Our employees put great emphasis on customer service, but unfortunately the airport often gets blamed for bad experiences people have with airlines or the TSA.

S-R: Will the air travel experience ever improve?

Krauter: I think it will. During the recession, we saw a plateau on the side of TSA and technology. Technology is beginning to make the screening process not only more effective but less difficult. I also think the airlines are investing more money in the customer experience.

S-R: What could TSA do better?

Krauter: They could focus more on what I’d call line supervisory decision-making to find a better balance between their customer-service mission and their security mission.

S-R: What could airlines do better?

Krauter: Again, focus on that first line of supervision. Airlines went to third-party contracting to reduce costs and may have overdone that. They need to concentrate on that first contact and make it consistent across every airport, so someone walking up to the counter or boarding a plane gets the same level of service everywhere they go.

S-R: What’s your first thought when you see a story about a passenger being dragged off a plane?

Krauter: Poor leadership. Lack of training. I can’t envision something like that happening here with our police force because they’re really good at what they do.

S-R: There are bigger airports. Are you tempted to move on?

Krauter: I occasionally get calls about other opportunities. But at an airport this size, if I have an idea, I have a really good chance of bringing it to fruition. That’s very attractive to me.

S-R: What’s at the top of your bucket list?

Krauter: I would like to walk the Way of St. James, or Camino de Santiago. There are several routes. I would prefer the French Way.

S-R: I notice you have a rather large wristwatch?

Krauter: It’s an aviation watch, with features like time zones and a stopwatch. When you’re flying an airplane, you can’t count on everything functioning properly all the time. Plus, as you get older, big watches are easier to read.

Writer Michael Guilfoil can be contacted at mguilfoil@comcast.net.


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