New director aims to have air traffic take off

Warwick Beacon ·

The day following his selection as the man to rebuild passenger traffic to the levels they were in 2005, if not exceed them, Iftikhar Ahmad was quoting Socrates and sharing his personal quandary as to whether he should introduce a dog to the family, or maybe even two dogs since both of his sons would like a pet.

Ahmad, who the Rhode Island Airport Corporation (RIAC) board unanimously picked as the corporation’s next president and CEO Thursday evening, will officially start on Oct. 13. On Friday, Ahmad spent more than an hour in a joint meeting with key staff members followed by one-on-one interviews with the news media.

He made his mission to increase traffic at Green clear from the outset of the interview. He views the role of the airport as critical to the economy and an element in the effort to bring business to Rhode Island and create more jobs so that young people aren’t forced to leave the state to find work. If that sounds like a page out of Gov. Gina’s Raimondo’s handbook, it probably is. He met with her before being chosen for the post.

“It’s job creation and quality of life,” Ahmad said of the task he faces.

And how might this fit with Socrates?

“You are only taller if someone is shorter,” he said.

Maybe it’s not exactly what Socrates said, but Ahmad’s point is that he will be keeping a close eye on what the competition is doing.

His experience in New Orleans, where annual passenger traffic grew from 7.8 million passengers in 2009 to 10.7 million in 2015, was touted in the press release announcing his appointment.

“His experience and record of success in growing passenger traffic in New Orleans and his ability to secure new routes and airlines were particularly appealing to the board. He also has a strong history of building community support, which is integral to the success and growth of any airport. We have every confidence he will be able to replicate his successes here,” Jonathan N. Savage, chairman of the RIAC board, said in a statement.

Ahmad noted that enplanements nationally were 800 million in 2007 and were predicted to reach one billion by 2014 by the Federal Aviation Administration. That didn’t happen. Enplanements slipped with the Great Recession, and only now are they approaching what they were in 2007.

Green, on the other hand, had a high of 5.7 million passengers [enplanements and arrivals combined] in 2005. And while there have been some small increases, overall traffic at Green is still about 40 percent off from where it had been, he said.

Ahmad said “all the resources are here,” and he sees the potential with completion of the runway extension in late 2017 for additional service to the Midwest and West.

So how’s he going to do it?

“It’s basically selling a little harder, with more force,” he said.

His strategy includes lowering the cost for airlines to operate from Green by offering incentives and engaging the business community in using the airport.

“You make it easier for airlines to do business here,” he said. “We have to show what’s in it for them [the airlines].”

Part of the plan also involves making Rhode Island a destination for travelers through marketing the state’s assets for tourism, conferences, and conventions.

At New Orleans, he grew the total number of airlines serving the airport to a record of 15, having recruited 10 additional airlines since 2010. He also significantly increased non-stop flights from 28 to 57. Additionally, Ahmad secured new routes to Latin America, Mexico, the Caribbean, Canada, and Europe.

As of Friday, Ahmad had not met Warwick Mayor Scott Avedisian. He aims to do so after starting the job. He said he also plans to get out in the community, accepting offers to speak at the Rotary and other service clubs and before business groups and neighborhood associations.

In total, Ahmad brings 19 years of aviation management experience to Rhode Island through his previous positions with the city of Houston’s Department of Aviation; the Metropolitan Nashville Airport Authority; the city of Dayton’s Department of Aviation; and the New Orleans Aviation Board. He currently serves as the CEO of the New Orleans Aviation Board, which oversees an airport serving 10.7 million passengers annually. Ahmad obtained an MS and BS in civil engineering from Oklahoma State University. He is being paid $346,500.

Ahmad said he plans to continue in the unpaid position as a United States’ civil aviation expert to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), a post he has held since April 2015.

He succeeds Kelly Fredericks, who left as president and CEO in March of this year to head Ontario International Airport Authority in California. Peter Frazier, legal counsel to RIAC, served as interim president and CEO and was one of two finalists for the job here.

Ahmad has put a deposit on a house in East Greenwich and was in the process of having his sons look at the schools they would be attending on Friday. And as the house has a dog run, he is mulling his sons’ request to get a dog, maybe two dogs.

Like his design for the airport, Ahmad is thinking of growing.