John E. “Jack” Potter, head of Reagan National and Dulles International airports, is one of the highest paid airport executives in the country, with a base salary that outpaces all but one of the nation’s top 10 airport chiefs.
Now, newly released documents show just how lucrative Potter’s contract is.
Potter’s base salary is just over $474,000, but he is eligible for more than $232,200 in bonuses, which could bring his total salary this year to more than $706,000. (The Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority had previously said that Potter’s base salary was $451,776, but said last week that figure reflected his base salary in 2017.)
Documents show the bonuses are part of a revised agreement approved by a committee of the MWAA board in January, but not made public until last month.
In addition to giving Potter a $90,000 retention bonus as part of the deal, the committee increased his potential yearly bonus from 20 percent to 30 percent of his base salary and gave him nearly two additional weeks of vacation. MWAA employees typically receive 26 days of vacation, but Potter will receive 39 under his deal. He also will be eligible for a retention bonus for each year he remains chief executive of the authority.
Warner Session, chairman of the MWAA board, said that Potter’s responsibilities go beyond the airports. As part of his job, Potter manages about 1,700 employees and a nearly $2 billion budget and also is responsible for managing construction of the multibillion-dollar Silver Line rail project and the Dulles Toll Road.
“This is what companies do when they want to keep someone,” said Anthony Vegliante, MWAA’s vice president for human resources. “As a CEO increases in tenure, there’s value to that.”
MWAA’s release of Potter’s contract is an about-face; it previously denied multiple Washington Post requests for the details, citing a privacy exemption in its public records policy.
At the time, Session said he saw no reason details of Potter’s contract should be made public.
“I would say it’s collective wisdom of the board that details of the other things are best left not disclosed,” Session told The Post. “I think [the public] should know what the salary is, but beyond that I don’t see any value in discussing the details of the contract.”
Potter took over as head of MWAA in 2011 as the agency was grappling with those scandals and pledged that the authority would be transparent in its dealings. That’s part of the reason its decision to withhold details of his contract left some lawmakers and open-government advocates concerned it was returning to its old ways.
In June, Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) wrote to Session, demanding the document be made public.
“There is no case to be made for withholding from the American public basic information on how MWAA compensated its executives,” Norton wrote. She gave MWAA 30 days to respond.
Norton met with MWAA officials last month and they agreed to make the information available.
“They said it was a mistake not to do it,” Norton said.
Session said Norton’s letter may have influenced the board’s decision to go public.
“The delegate’s letter helped move that process along,” he said, adding that all future CEO contracts will be made public.
Potter’s salary is not paid for by taxpayers. Dulles and National, like most U.S. airports, are self-supporting — funded through landing fees, rent and concessions, including parking and food and beverage sales.
However, the airports authority does receive federal funding as part of its management of construction of the $5.8 billion Silver Line rail extension. The project received a $900 million federal grant to fund its first phase and nearly $2 billion in federal loans to pay for the second, which is scheduled to open for passenger service in 2020. The airports authority also has received state support from Virginia. In 2015, then-Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) announced a plan to give the authority $50 million — payable in two installments — to help make Dulles Airport more competitive.
Session said given the complexity of Potter’s job, the board looked beyond other airport executives in determining his compensation, retaining an outside consultant to look at what chief executives in other industries are paid. That report, which looked at CEO salaries in private industry as well as government and nonprofit organizations in the Washington region and nationwide, found that at just over $450,000 a year, Potter was significantly underpaid.
The consultant said he could not name which CEOs and which companies were used in making the comparison because of privacy concerns.
That information is significant because salaries can vary widely in the private, public and nonprofit sectors. For example, in Virginia, where MWAA is based, Gov. Ralph Northam (D) earns a base salary of $175,000. James E. Ryan, incoming president of the University of Virginia, has a base salary of $750,000. Phebe N. Novakovic, head of Falls Church-based General Dynamics, had a base salary of $1.5 million in 2016. In the transportation sector, Metro General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld earns $397,500.
Even with the pay increase and bonuses given as part of the 2018 agreement, the memo noted, Potter still falls short of the median salary of CEOs nationwide.
Norton said it was not for her to say whether Potter’s salary and bonuses are justified, but MWAA’s initial unwillingness to release details beyond his base salary left her wondering whether they feared backlash from the public.
“I think there is a case to be made that he does more than run airports, but again he makes so much more than those who run larger airport networks,” she said.
A survey of salaries of airport executives at the 10 busiest U.S. airports found that only Sean Donohue, who runs Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, the nation’s fourth busiest, earns more. Donohue makes $496,186 and is eligible for a $600,000 retention bonus if he stays in the job until Jan. 1, 2021.
By comparison, Huntley Lawrence, the head of New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport, the nation’s fifth busiest, and also manages LaGuardia, Newark Liberty International, Stewart International and Teterboro airports, makes $265,772 a year.
MWAA’s Vegliante noted that some salary comparisons may be skewed because some public agencies place limits on executive pay.
Potter’s deal also includes a provision for a $5,000 executive physical, a company car and cellphone. The authority also agreed to pay any tax liability connected with the car, a Chevy Impala. As part of his 2011 contract, he also received a $25,000 signing bonus.