Gene Richards is a mortgage broker and landlord, and he looks the part. But at a news conference Thursday announcing his designation as aviation director of Burlington International Airport, he was lauded as a rock star. Richards, 52, has been holding BTV’s top post on an interim basis for the past 10 months.
Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger led a chorus of local business leaders and city officials in praising Richards’ work in stabilizing the airport’s finances and initiating improvements in its services and facilities.
“Gene has the eye of a businessman,” Weinberger said. In addition to saving $300,000 a year through refinancing $24 million in airport debt, Richards “has found a way to make substantial investments in this facility,” the mayor added, pointing to a new roof being installed on the airport terminal. Richards has also landed “the first new service in years” at BTV — daily Delta Airline flights to and from Atlanta starting next month, Weinberger noted.
The mayor said he will ask the Burlington city council to approve Richards’ appointment at its June 3 meeting.
“Things are going in the right direction,” Richards commented while taking a brief turn at the podium. “We have a bright tomorrow. It’s a new day for us.”
Weinberger and Kelly Devine, director of the Burlington Business Association, underscored the airport’s importance to the region’s economy. “We’re not just some backwater here, because of the airport in large part,” the mayor said. Devine observed that BTV serves as “Burlington’s link to the global economy.”
“For the business community,” Weinberger added, “this is my top appointment.” He acknowledged that business executives have been “concerned in recent years with the trajectory of the airport.”
Those concerns have focused on the downgrade in the airport’s credit rating by Moody’s Investors Service. The Wall Street monitoring firm said last November that the Ba1 rating it assigned to BTV “reflects weakness in the airport's market position shown by recent enplanement declines as well as its financial volatility shown in recent years.”
The number of passengers boarding flights at BTV dropped last year to 580,000 from nearly 650,000 in 2011, and has plunged from a peak of 759,000 boardings in 2008.
Moody’s also found positive elements in the airport’s financial picture, including a “diverse carrier base and revenue mix, and improving liquidity and financial performance.” BTV also enjoys a lack of direct competition “that is likely supportive of future increased rates and charges at the airport,” Moody’s added in its November assessment.
The mood was entirely upbeat at Thursday’s celebratory event on the terminal mezzanine, which was attended by a number of airport workers.
Ann Beland, Burlington general manager of JetBlue, joined in the praise for Richards’ performance, saying he has improved communications with the airline and has proved “responsive to any issues and concerns I have.”
Jeff Munger, chair of the city’s airport commission, said that with Richards at the controls, “Everything is looking up. The sky’s the limit.”
Burlington city councilor Karen Paul, an independent who co-chairs Weinberger’s Airport Strategic Planning Commission, turned to Richards and declared, “Gene, you are a rock star.”
Photo of Gene Richards, speaking, by Kevin J. Kelley.