James A. Wilding will retire May 2 as president and chief executive officer of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority. Wilding, an engineer who rose through the ranks of the Federal Aviation Administration, became head of the authority that operates Reagan National and Dulles International airports in 1987, when the federal government relinquished the two airports to regional control.
Wilding, 65, will be succeeded by his deputy and chief operating officer, James E. Bennett, at one of the most challenging times for airports. The airline industry is in financial turmoil as air travel wanes with the war in Iraq, the economic slump and terrorism concerns.
Q What are the biggest changes you've seen in aviation during your 43-year career?
A I think the biggest change has been that aviation, when I began my career, was a form of transportation available only to a very limited number of people. Over the years, it's become available to just about everybody. Before it used to be for the very wealthy to use for leisure and for high-end business people whose time was so precious that they could afford to buy an airplane ticket. Airplanes themselves also are so much faster, so much cleaner, so much quieter, so much more comfortable.
What are the biggest changes you've seen in airports?
Airports used to be relatively simple places -- a couple of runways, a relatively modest terminal building and a parking lot. Over the years, at least in major cities, they've become really complex small cities that have high-rise buildings. Rather than having simple hot dog stands, they have a vast array of commercial enterprises operating in them. They're just far more complex places.
What are the biggest challenges facing Reagan National and Dulles International over the next five to 10 years?
I think the biggest challenge is to find a pace and a rhythm for further improvement that are in tune with the growth in aviation. That growth is now at a whole different rhythm than we thought it would be a couple of years ago. It'll go through a lot of changes in the years ahead. We're trying to have our development at the airports be sympathetic to that growth -- not too fast where we get into financial problems, not so slow that we don't take advantage of the opportunities that we have. I've never seen a time when it was more challenging to do that.
Baltimore-Washington International Airport has had breakneck growth in the past 10 years. How do you see it competing with National and Dulles?
They do a nice job up there, and BWI has clearly become a sort of poster child for the low-fare product, particularly Southwest Airlines. I think of it only at the margins in terms of competition. Aviation is soft now, but we're going to be back within a year or two or three when airport capacity will become a nationwide issue again. I think we're extraordinarily fortunate to have the availability of so many airports. There's plenty to go around.
How do you see National and Dulles changing over the next 10 years?
National won't change much, but I think we'll have done something to restore the old, original terminal. I think you'll see dramatic changes at Dulles. You'll see the underground train system operating [to connect the terminal and gate areas]. You'll see more midfield gate areas. You'll see a fourth runway. You'll just see more increments in an expansion of the airport that will go on for years and years. I think you'll see more international service, particularly to South America and Asia.
Do you think Metrorail will ever reach Dulles? If so, when? And what will it take?
Yes, I do. It's going to take a continued level of cooperation and participation by local governments at a pace where people are really working together to make it happen. It's also going to take a substantial financial commitment by the federal government. It's probably going to take a couple of reauthorization rounds [of six-year federal transportation spending bills] to get the job done.
What lasting impacts do you think the Sept. 11, 2001, hijacking attacks will have on air travel and airports?
I don't think any of us have noodled out what the lasting impacts are. The clear impacts are the security measures. A much greater share of our expenses these days is on security. It has a very, very pervasive influence. That's sort of the known dimension of September 11. I think the yet unknown dimension is what the ultimate reaction of the flying public is going to be.
You have September 11, you have the soft economy, you have SARS [severe acute respiratory syndrome] and the war in Iraq. All those things together have had a depressing effect on the use of air transportation. I think it's going to take another couple of years for that to sort itself out.
What will you miss most?
The people. There are just wonderful people in aviation, particularly here at the authority. It's a pleasure to show up each morning and see them.
What will you miss least?
I'll let you know later.
Just that I feel like the luckiest guy around. I've had the best job in town for many, many years.
Wilding says he sees great change on the horizon for Dulles International Airport, from a fourth runway and more midfield gates to more incremental expansion.