James A. Wilding has been shunned and jeered and booed. He has endured Bronx cheers in Arlington County and bad tidings on Capitol Hill.
Through it all, the man who runs Washington's National and Dulles International airports has remained, well, the envy of his industry.
"There is nobody in America like Jim Wilding," said Robert Aaronson, director of aviation at Kennedy, LaGuardia and Newark airports. "He's like Merlin the magician. What he does down there is hard to comprehend."
What Wilding has done since 1979, as director of the Metropolitan Washington Airports, has been to preside over the only commercial airports owned and operated by the federal government. While airlines have invested heavily, every cent spent by the Federal Aviation Administration on National and Dulles must come from the federal budget. So Wilding, pinching pennies and fighting cutbacks, scrapes by with a fraction of the funds available to other major airports.
"Everybody is just a little jealous of Jim," said one senior airline industry official. "Because we can't quite figure out how he does it."
For decades Congress has been asked to yield control of the airports, and for decades it has refused. This spring, the Reagan administration helped push a bill through the Senate that would transfer them to a regional authority, which could issue revenue bonds to finance improvements. However, the idea has gained little support in the House.
Almost everyone agrees that the two airports need help fast. But the administration is not about to part with the $700 million the Department of Transportation says it would cost to bring National into the modern age and permit Dulles to cope with its explosive growth.
Without the money, Wilding and his staff say, they have had little choice but to sit wrapped in bureaucratic red tape as National, one of the busiest airports in the nation, slowly falls to pieces.
"Sure, it's a difficult situation here," Wilding said recently, sitting in the hangar at National that serves as the FAA's field office. "We've had 45 years of three-year solutions. There is no room left to move. We followed a 'scorched earth' policy for years, and it shows. Our existing work force about 700 people has more than 10,000 years of experience at these two airports. During that 10,000 years, there have been a lot of frustrations."
There are, for instance, the daily frustrations of trying to move 65,000 passengers -- "That's RFK Stadium with 10,000 extra people in the parking lot," Wilding said -- through the traffic jams at Dulles and the dilapidated terminals at National.
There are the frustrations of having to rely on the glacial movement of the federal bureaucracy to keep the airports in operation. "Take something as simple as buying a new truck. If the fire station at National needs a truck, we have to go to Congress to get the money," Wilding said.
And there are the frustrations of meeting with neighborhood committees, which for years have complained about the noise of planes coming into and leaving National. Although Dulles is 22 miles from the District of Columbia, few airports are closer to the city they serve than National and few cause nearby residents greater noise problems. This frustration is perhaps the largest, because people who are blanketed in the roar of jets can be persistent opponents.
"Wilding speaks softly and seems reasonable," said Fred Wood, a leader in urging that the FAA adopt stricter noise limitations at National. "But our situation has not improved. It's nice that he listens and it's nice that he doesn't shout, but in the end he is really just a bureaucrat."
Wilding is not among those who find the label "bureaucrat" a personal affront.
"I've been with the federal government a long time. I know the process and I like the challenge. What two airports could be more different?" he asked, noting that while National is as developed and cramped as it can be, wildlife management is one of his most serious problems at Dulles, where beavers and deer roam the 11,000-acre facility.
Wilding, who shuttles almost daily between Dulles and National in a standard-issue government car from the FAA pool, has spent his entire professional career at the two airports. He started as an engineer in planning the construction of Dulles as soon as he graduated from Catholic University in 1959.
He worked his way through design and construction before becoming chief of the airports' engineering staff in 1972. He became deputy director of the airports in 1975 and the director in 1979. His $68,700 annual salary is less than half of what operators of other major airports earn.
A native of the District, Wilding, 48, lives in Silver Spring ("No, I'm not in a flight path") with his wife and four children. He attended Catholic schools in Washington and remains active in the church.
Wilding is a quiet manager, a detail man who some employes say appears to feel more comfortable with computer printouts than with his colleagues. A large man with a perpetual look of puzzlement on his face, "Jim's one of those quys who likes to ponder things," said Aaronson, the aviation director at Kennedy. Wilding is seen as affable but removed. "Earnest" is a word commonly used to describe him, and he refers to himself as "a boy scout at heart."
Within the airport industry -- and the government agencies he must do business with -- Wilding is given the highest marks for running an efficient operation in trying circumstances. Airline executives have made it clear that if the transfer goes through, they want Wilding to stay on the job.
"Jim Wilding has one of the toughest management problems in the United States," said Clark Onstad, vice president of Texas Air Corp. and former chief counsel at the FAA. "His budget problems are immense, and he always pulls it off. He is so good, people wonder why he stays on the job. It would take him 72 hours to get a new one."
Operating expenses at airports vary widely, but in 1985 Congress appropriated $35.9 million for Dulles and National. By comparison, New York's JFK and LaGuardia together spent $277 million on operations in 1985. Chicago has embarked upon a 13-year, $1.6 billion capital improvement program at O'Hare, the nation's busiest airport.
Airlines love National because it is packed with passengers and is an inexpensive place to operate. That is in part the result of Wilding's thrifty management style.
"If he was in charge of the federal budget, we'd have a surplus in a year," said James Murphy, who preceeded Wilding in his job and is now in charge of airport policy for the Air Transport Association.
Last fall, calling him a "truly exceptional individual," Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Hanford Dole gave Wilding the highest award she can dispense, the Achievement Medal.
Are kind words enough to keep Jim Wilding from bolting the bureaucracy?
"This is a very exciting job, a wonderful opportunity," he said, toying with two of the six pens he routinely keeps tucked in his shirt pocket. "The staff is unique, a pleasure to work with. Actually, I'm pretty lucky to do what I do."