The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Head of National and Dulles is among highest-paid U.S. airport executives

Jack Potter, president and CEO of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, is one of the highest-paid airport exectives in the country. (Dayna Smith/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST)
Placeholder while article actions load

The head of Dulles International and Reagan National airports is among the highest-paid airport executives in the country, earning significantly more than those who run the nation’s busiest airports, a Washington Post survey found.

John E. “Jack” Potter, president and chief executive of the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, makes a base salary of just over $451,000 a year. By comparison, Roosevelt Council Jr., who until earlier this month served as general manager of the world’s busiest airport, Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International, made less than half that — $221,000 a year.

A survey of salaries of airport executives at the 10 busiest U.S. airports found that Potter’s base salary is higher than all but one, even though National and Dulles rank 23rd and 26th, respectively, in passenger traffic. And since Potter was hired in 2011, his base pay has increased $100,000.

Only Sean Donohue, chief executive of Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, the country’s fourth-busiest, makes more than Potter, with a base salary of $496,186.

“I would simply say, he’s worth it,” MWAA board chairman Warner Session said, explaining Potter’s high salary.

“The profile of our airport is different than probably any other in that we operate a two-airport system at the same time we’re managing construction of a $6 billion rail project and operating a toll road,” Session said.

Board member David Speck added, “Jack’s compensation is a reflection of the magnitude and success he’s had in managing two airports. When you make a comparison of the full compensation [packages], Jack is right in the middle.”

The Washington Post was unable to make that comparison because MWAA refused to provide a copy of Potter’s contract or release any information beyond his base salary, citing an exemption in its Freedom of Information policy.

Although the agency has in the past released a copy of Potter’s contract and those of two other MWAA executives, officials said concerns about the privacy of employees now outweigh the public interest in the contract.

Potter did not respond to requests for comment about his salary or contract.

MWAA’s refusal to release the information makes it an outlier among its peers. Of the 10 airports The Post surveyed, Chicago, Dallas and Las Vegas provided copies of their executives’ contracts to The Post. Other agencies, including the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and the city of Charlotte, post their airport executives’ salary information, including bonuses and overtime pay, online.

Taxpayers do not pay Potter’s salary. Dulles and National, like most U.S. airports, are self-supporting — being 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 Metro Silver Line rail extension, the largest transportation project in the region and one of the biggest in the country. 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.

In 2015, then-Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) announced a plan to give the authority $50 million — payable in two installments — to help make Dulles Airport more competitive.

MWAA is governed by a 17-member board whose members serve six-year terms and are appointed by the D.C. mayor, the governors of Maryland and Virginia, and the president. Potter’s salary is determined by the board’s executive and governance committee, said David Mould, an MWAA spokesman. Potter’s current contract was approved in 2015 and has no term, officials said.

Open-government advocates say that public agencies — even those that set their own rules for disclosure of records — should strive to be as transparent as possible, particularly regarding executive salaries.

“We see a heightened interest and need for the public to know when you are talking about public utilities,” said Megan Rhyne, executive director of the Virginia Coalition for Open Government. “There is a public interest in knowing how officials are compensated and whether that compensation is fair and appropriate.”

Rhyne said that in Virginia, such contracts are considered public records.

“The notion that an employment contract is personal privacy, I don’t get,” she said. “Under regular open-records laws, contracts are always [public records]. Virginia law says that employment contracts are open records.”

But Session said he saw no value in sharing Potter’s contract with the public.

“I would say it’s collective wisdom of the board that details of the other things are best left not disclosed,” Session said. “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.”

MWAA differs from other agencies that manage U.S. airports for another reason. Because it was created by Congress, it has a unique status and essentially sets its own rules.

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority has a similar status. However, the agency, which runs Metro, provided The Post with a copy of General Manager Paul J. Wiedefeld’s contract. His base salary is $397,500 a year.

For years, MWAA operated largely without oversight — a practice that drew congressional scrutiny and calls for reform after ethics and contracting scandals that culminated in an investigation by a federal inspector general. The probe found that board members traveled lavishly and that they, along with MWAA executives, gave jobs to family members and friends. Authority executives also accepted gifts from contractors, including Super Bowl tickets, and awarded no-bid contracts worth millions of dollars, the IG found. In one case, Potter hired a former board member for a $180,000-a-year job at MWAA. None of the practices violated airports authority rules that were then in place.

After the release of the IG’s report, MWAA officials passed reforms, including new policies regarding business travel and ethics.

IG audit details hiring, ethical abuses at MWAA

But government watchdogs say the airports authority needs to be more transparent.

“MWAA should be seen as a quasi-public agency whose obligation is to serve the public’s interests,” said Craig Holman, a government-affairs lobbyist at Public Citizen. “This means that salaries, including the salary of the agency’s CEO, should be commensurate with the salaries of comparable airport authorities, and most certainly these salaries and benefits should be subject to public scrutiny.”

MWAA officials acknowledged that they had previously released Potter’s contract but said that that decision came as the authority was under federal scrutiny amid contracting and ethics scandals.

That release, wrote Monica Hargrove, who is an MWAA vice president and the board secretary, “was made at a time that presented quite unique circumstances for Airports Authority — circumstances, that in many quarters, gave rise to questions relating to professionalism, competency and integrity of the Authority, and that we judged at the time to require an override of the FOI policy’s exemption for personnel records and the release [of] the requested contracts into the public domain.”

Those circumstances, Hargrove wrote, no longer exist.

Airport board approves new travel policy, debates ethics reform

In his role as chief executive, Potter manages about 1,700 employees and a nearly $2 billion budget. In addition to the two airports, his portfolio includes oversight of the Dulles Toll Road and construction of the Silver Line rail extension.

According to passenger traffic statistics from the Federal Aviation Administration, about 22 million passenger boardings occurred at National and Dulles in 2016. Atlanta recorded 50.5 million passenger boardings.

Potter joined MWAA in 2011, after serving as U.S. postmaster general, and is credited with righting an agency that was engulfed in turmoil.

He also manages an airport with high-profile clientele. National, a short trip from Capitol Hill, is a favorite of members of Congress, who get free parking in a VIP lot at the airport.

Under his previous contract, a five-year agreement signed in June 2011, Potter received a base salary of $350,000 as well as a $25,000 signing bonus. He also was eligible for a yearly performance bonus of up to 20 percent of his base salary. In addition, he was provided with a company car and was eligible to be reimbursed $5,000 for an annual physical examination. He also received 26 days of paid vacation.