EDITORIAL: Airport executives' travel deserves scrutiny

March 17, 2012

The $67,000 spent last year by Indianapolis Airport Authority executives to travel to meetings and conferences all over the world is peanuts as a percentage of the airport’s $168 million operating budget. But the lavishness of the trips smacks of a culture of indulgence and raises questions about whether airport CEO John Clark III is making the best use of his time.

As Chris O’Malley reported in IBJ last week, Clark was gone about a quarter of last year traveling to exotic locales like Morocco and Zurich on airport business. It wasn’t unusual for Clark and his top lieutenants to spend $8,000 to $10,000 on trips to conferences where they say they represented the airport and gained exposure to “best practices” in airport management.

Perhaps Clark and others can point to specific examples of lessons learned at conferences and how those lessons were applied to the benefit of local airport operations. Without those specifics, it’s hard to see how trips to places like Morocco, where Clark attended the Airports Council International World Board Conference, are appropriate on a regular basis.

If such trips could be used to make connections and get ideas to help overcome some of our airport’s disadvantages, we’d be all for a globetrotting executive team. But on the level that matters most to travelers, there’s little evidence of such benefits. The airport has few international flights to speak of and continues its years-long struggle to add direct flights between Indianapolis and key domestic destinations.

Regular travel to places like Athens and Copenhagen seems odd for executives of an airport that doesn’t even have nonstop flights to domestic business centers such as Hartford, Conn.; Austin, Texas; and San Francisco.

We realize there’s more to running an airport than meets the travelers’ eye. Airlines have praised the local airport’s fiscal management, which lowers their costs of operating here. And Clark and his team are hard at work trying to maximize non-airline revenue by finding the best use for surplus airport-owned land.

The travel issues that have been raised don’t strike us as a sign of widespread mismanagement of the airport, but they were bound to attract attention in light of Clark’s history where international travel is concerned. When he was hired here in 2009, there were questions about his history of trips to places like Brussels and Buenos Aires while running the Jacksonville, Fla., airport authority.

Those who hired him swatted away such concerns, but new airport authority president Mike Wells is concerned enough that he’s intent on revamping the IAA’s travel policy to make sure time spent on the road—or in the air—is board-approved and worth the expense.

Wells is no IAA rookie. He was on the board from 1992 to 2008, including time spent as president. His involvement gives us confidence that future spending on travel by airport executives will be worth the money and consistent with the airport’s reputation for spending its money carefully.•


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