AFTER 43 PRODUCTIVE YEARS of deftly navigating National and Dulles airports through bureaucratic fog and political turbulence, James A. Wilding is stepping down May 2 as president and chief executive of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority. The only person in the country running two major airports from top to bottom simultaneously, Mr. Wilding moved National from dilapidation to splendor and Dulles from near-emptiness to bustle as an expanded international gateway to the nation's capital. In his field and in Congress -- where the frequent political fliers have never stopped looking over his shoulder -- Jim Wilding has earned respect; his low-key, high-level style proved exceptionally effective at pivotal points in the history of the two airports.
His savvy approach worked in 1987 to wrest National and Dulles from federal control and place them under regional management -- a major political feat that sped up development of both airports from then on. Elizabeth Dole, secretary of transportation at the time, had decided that the only way to improve the airports efficiently was to get the federal government out of the time-consuming, day-to-day business of running them -- to transfer them to a regional authority that could issue bonds to speed construction. She called on former Virginia governor Linwood Holton, widely admired by lawmakers from both parties, to lobby for the change. He immediately engaged the expertise of Mr. Wilding, then the government's airports chief. Together they and Ms. Dole worked Capitol Hill, appealing to the lawmakers' personal interests in turning the airports into top-flight facilities.
One big reward for these efforts was the new, world-class National Airport that was readied for takeoff in 1997. Its transformation into a state-of-the-art, glass-and-steel showcase airport proved to be a factor in saving it from permanent closing after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Again, it was the calm and informed behind-the-scenes work of Mr. Wilding that fortified local elected officials' arguments that a permanent closing would cause severe economic harm to this region and would dump impossible travel burdens on Dulles and Baltimore-Washington International Airport.
Mr. Wilding, who likes to point up the important role of dedicated public servants, was a model himself. He never sought praise but constantly earned it.