May 2016 20 Questions: Grant Sussey, Watertown Airport

Growth in full flight

Watertown International Airport manager Grant W. Sussey talks about several projects in his office at the county-managed airport. Photo by Justin Sorensen, NNY Business.

Watertown International Airport manager Grant W. Sussey talks about several projects in his office at the county-managed airport. Photo by Justin Sorensen, NNY Business.

Sussey: Watertown Airport on pace as driving force for region’s economy

Serving as Watertown International Airport’s first airport manager, Grant W. Sussey, stepped into the role during a period of extensive growth involving substantial projects like the runway extension and an addition on the airport’s terminal to make space for TSA checkpoints. He sat down with us this month to discuss the continued success of the airport’s operations and plans to transform it into a future economic driver of the region.

NNYB: At the time you were hired the airport was experiencing such success that sustaining operations had become more of a priority than ever before. It seems that things haven’t settled down since. What is fueling the success for the airport?

SUSSEY: I think the transition of the airport from the city to the county, there was. There was more investment in the airport and benefits that resulted of that. As far as what’s driving it, I think it’s the need for the air services, the need for access to the national transportation system. The economic activity in the community goes hand-in-hand with the airport. The airport can help it, can help grow it and can get more dividends by having the movement of fair commerce, the movement of people and goods.

NNYB: In April 2014, county legislators hired a consulting firm to complete a “True Market Study” to measure passenger activity at Watertown International Airport in an effort to better market the facility to customers. In short, what did you learn from that study?

SUSSEY: What we learned from that study is that our area, our market really has a great story to share, and a great data story to share to airlines and to air carriers, showing that we have a great area with strong components of passengers that are traveling. It kind of showed the opportunities of potential markets that we could reach, where people are flying to and from. We can use that information, that data, when we speak to different airlines and when we speak with our EAS carrier to fine tune our routes to match the market that’s here. With that study is a lot of data and the data was mostly valuable to the airlines and how to fine tune their business to make it as successful as we can.

NNYB: That study was also to give county administrators an idea of just how big the airport’s market share actually is and provide information about which airports passengers use most frequently and why they drive to those locations. So, what is the airports’ market share?

0427_biz_Grant Sussey1 WEBSUSSEY: We’re only capturing three percent of that potential market share that’s out there. There’s opportunity to increase that. Only three percent, it just shows growth opportunities available.

NNYB: Which airports passengers use most frequently and why they drive to those locations?

SUSSEY: In our area we have passengers that will use Toronto, Ottawa, Syracuse, and Rochester. I think that our whole goal with the EAS is to be able to have that connection to a major hub here at Watertown, but we do realize that there’s limited frequency and capacity. We aren’t looking to become a Syracuse or an Ottawa airport. We’re trying to meet the needs of our community and keep our community connected. We want to enhance our air service and our options, but there’s always going to be some needs of travelers where flying out of a neighboring airport makes sense. What we want to do is make sure that the travelers always check Watertown first.

NNYB: What will it take for additional commercial air service to land at the airport? How far off is that?

SUSSEY: First and foremost, our primary objective is our current air carrier and our current EAS air carrier, and making sure that they have the ability to remain profitable and stay here. We’ve made great progress with them and we can continue to grow. As far as how soon we may have additional service in the future, well, with the EAS program we’re making progress. The DOT puts out a bid for their service and it decreased the subsidy be over half. It went from like $3.3 million down to $1.8 million for our current air service. It shows that we’re doing our part towards that self-sufficiency. It’s possible in the future to get off EAS, but once that decision’s made, we can never go back to that EAS program. So, we have to make sure that that air service is a solid operation that can stand on its own.

NNYB: Is the airport meeting the requirements of the federal Essential Air Service program for it to continue?

SUSSEY: By showing continued steady growth and working hard to make the route as sustainable as possible, I think that we’re on the right track. Anything that we do as far as adding destinations and working with other air carriers and any other potential markets, it’s important that it does not hurt out EAS carrier. We want to make sure that it complements and doesn’t impede our EAS air carrier.

NNYB: How do you respond to critics who may question the necessity for a federal subsidy to a private, for-profit airline to serve the region?

0427_biz_Grant Sussey2 WEBSUSSEY: The goal of the EAS program is for small communities to have air service and to have access to the national air space system. After airline deregulation in ’78, the program was established to make sure these small communities that may lose air service continue to have air service, continue to have a connection to that air space system. The goal of the program is to ultimately become free of that subsidy and ultimately be able to sustain their service on their own. Our partner American has worked very hard and we’ve worked very hard with them and we’re doing better. We’ve decreased that subsidy. I think in the future it’s possible, but when we do get off EAS we have to make sure this air service is as sustainable as possible because when air service is lost in a community it’s extremely hard to get it back. What the opportunity is, is we have the opportunity to have maybe less than daily air service. We have the opportunity to have connections, maybe a connection to other cities or other markets on a less than daily basis. That opportunity exists. First and foremost we have to make sure our EAS carrier is doing well and we continue to make progress and decrease the subsidy over time, but we do have some additional opportunities in our market to have that less than daily air service and have a connection to another city. I think that possibility exists, and when will that happen? I’d say, within five years.

NNYB: Is the future of EAS is solid? Has there been talk at the federal level of eliminating it?

SUSSEY: Every so often there are some conversations at the federal level about EAS and there’s been at times different thresholds that have existed. We’ve always been well under those thresholds based on how successful our route is. Our cost is less than other markets out west, other smaller communities.

NNYB: How can the county better market the airport and surrounding area as a destination?

SUSSEY: We have a marketing plan where we’re continually communicating and getting feedback, looking to our passengers and looking to our potential customers and what we can do to improve and continue to grow. Educating the community on options that are out there. The biggest thing is getting our community to always check Watertown first and keep checking. We go to many community events and we’re always doing outreaches to get feedback from our area businesses, tourism folks, lodging and attractions to get as much information as we can to share our story. We have a really good story to share with potential airlines out there and other locations to show what we have: a strong market, tourism, Fort Drum, our military partners and our local community. Continuing to communicate and share information back and forth is critical to further that marketing and further that growth of the airport.

NNYB: In 2014, several airport projects were under way, including the True Market Study, a $2.4 million taxiway rehabilitation project, a 1,000-foot runway expansion. A Jefferson County Industrial Development Agency-sponsored plan to build a corporate park is now in its initial phase. A new $1.5 million hangar was completed last year. How has the community responded to all the recent improvements?

SUSSEY: When we go to different events and we talk to different people I think they’re proud of the accomplishments of the airport and what’s occurred. I think they’re proud. I think they realize what’s happening. Our community’s very engaged in developments at the airport. They’re all very aware of everything as the airport grows and each project. The community takes pride in how well the airport is developing and growing to be a real regional asset. Even our tenants are very happy. We’ve noticed a lot of our customers and transient pilots are very impressed and the word continues to spread. As people come through and they see the new facility they get a good first impression of Jefferson County and how we welcome people here. Of course we want them to invest in our community. We want them to stay here, live here, create jobs here. It’s reaching its goal of being the community’s front door.

NNYB: With the extra thousand foot of runway that will enable jets to come in during the winter months right?

0427_biz_Grant Sussey3 WEBSUSSEY: The extra thousand feet will make the airport more available for larger aircraft. It was specifically for the regional jet aircraft performance in the winter time. In the winter they have to turn on what they call aircraft de-icer. When you turn that on what it equates to is the airport needs more runway to take off or land depending on how it’s set up. With the runway extension it will make the airport more available, increase the utility of the airport to be able to accept larger aircraft.

NNYB: You have been very successful in securing a number of different grants from several different sources, state and federal. What opportunities are out there?

SUSSEY: Our airport is part of this national plan that Congress has where they allow airports to apply for grants for airport improvements. When you’re in this national plan, you’re eligible for these AIP grants, these airport improvement program grants and they are all a competitive grant process for airports across the country. Those projects with higher safety ratings and higher need levels based on a national priority rating system get funded. That money in that grant program is from the Airport and Airway Trust Fund, which is a trust fund that is established based on revenue from ticket sales and taxes on aviation fuel. They go into this trust fund and it’s redistributed to airports based on safety requirements and needs. That program is critical to airports, especially ours where they pay 95 percent of the cost of eligible projects. The state pays 2.5 percent or eligible projects and the country pays the 2.5 local share. So, that’s one program that really helps airports out in maintaining that infrastructure. Congress and the federal government realize the importance of airports, the importance of furthering air commerce and the movement of people and goods. They make wise investments in airports because they see that true value and so does the state. That’s one funding source, another is through the New York State Aviation Capital Program. That’s a program that is funding for various business and airport needs in the state. We’ve been very successful through that program and obtaining grants. We’re always looking and seeing what opportunities are out there and how we can harness those to help further our business goals and further our plans at the airport.

NNYB: Do you think the corporate park will help make this airport more marketable?

SUSSEY: Absolutely, it goes hand-in-hand. When you have businesses that require that need to get people or goods by air somewhere, having that airport close by is critical to their business and it helps the airport business, too. It makes sense. It’s very common at airports to have industrial development right near the airport. That’s an attractant to businesses, having that location near the airport and having that close access is important.

NNYB: The county also serves as the Fixed Base Operator now. Is that a common thing?

SUSSEY: It varies. Some airports do operate the fixed-base operator and some don’t. Some will rent the space out, but it’s not uncommon to happen. It’s a smart way to do it here, to use the revenue from our fuel sales, hangar fees and ramp fees to offset the costs of the airport operation.

NNYB: When American Airlines changed its flight service here from Chicago to Philadelphia, some people thought it was a bad move. How has it panned out?

SUSSEY: I think Chicago was a strong and fun route, and that’s what they started with when they had their mainline legacy air carrier service. The service was valued and admired. When the merger took place, American saw even more value in switching to the east coast hub of Philly. When they looked at the passengers that they were flying and where they were going, they saw this is an opportunity to get people to a hub and onto their destination quicker. They found on some of their data that people were taking a bit circuitous route, routing through Chicago to fly to more east coast destinations. The Philly route has been successful for American and I think they’re very happy with the route.

NNYB: Now there’s national dialogue about the aviation infrastructure across our country switching from radar to GPS, what’s in the way of that? A lot of people think that’s kind of a no-brainer in a sense.

SUSSEY: As we evolve and as we learn more, I think the GPS definitely makes sense and that’s where we’re headed and that’s what’s happening, but there is an expense side to that for aircraft operators and aircraft owners. It is expensive. Upgrading equipment can be very expensive. Sometimes there’s a balance to get there. You have to take steps to get there. You can’t take a giant leap.

NNYB: What has best prepared you for this job?

0427_biz_Grant Sussey4 WEBSUSSEY: Always learning, always willing to learn new things and having an open mind to be able to grow and learn as a manager. Working with your staff, your tenants and your community and always willing to get that feedback. That’s important. As far as what’s best prepared me, having pilot training and being prepared for different circumstances and always having a backup plan, always being familiar with your systems, and know an aircraft and having a plan knowing how to fly the plan. When you relate it to flying, you

NNYB: When many young men consider a career in aviation, they dream of flying. What led you to a career in aviation management?

SUSSEY: Ever since I was in eighth/ninth grade I had a career path chosen and that was aviation. I was going to be in aviation, but as high school kind of developed my sights were on flying, flying commercially as an airline, captain for a major airline. I always had the Plan B I guess. It was just in my nature. The Plan B or even after having a successful airline career was to retire and become an airport manager. What I did was, after college and after instructing for a number of years, we had Sept. 11 and some economic downturns. The pilot career just wasn’t as attractive to me. There were still hundreds and thousands of pilots on furlough and I knew it would be a tough road, so I skipped the airline career and went right into airport management. I continue to fly for fun. That’s my passion. Flying and taking the airplane up and flying in that blue sky.

NNYB: Who is your mentor?

SUSSEY: In flying, I knew this pilot, Lt. Col. Fred Bullard. He was a retired air force pilot. I always looked up to him and his flying, knowledge, and leadership ability. I saw that and wanted to learn as much as I could from what he demonstrated.

NNYB: What motivates you the most?

SUSSEY: I see our plane come and go every day, but trying to catch every landing or take off and seeing all of that take place, that’s the best part. Seeing every airplane that’s flying, the mission of that flight, you never know if it’s a leisure flight, a business flight, or it could be someone going to get medical care. It could be a wide range of missions, but knowing that that flight is taking place and seeing it safely moving people to where they need to go and doing what they need to do is inspiring.

The Grant W. Sussey file

Age: 33

Job: Airport manager, Watertown International Airport, Jefferson County Aviation Department

Family: Mother, Janis; stepfather, Joe; brothers, Gary and Greg

Hometown: Constantia (Oswego County)

Education: Professional pilot certificate, North American Institute of Aviation, Conway, S.C., 2001; Cayuga Community College, 2003; bachelor’s in business administration; SUNY Oswego, 2005

Professional: Director of aviation at Orange County Airport in Montgomery; previously security supervisor, operations supervisor, and officer in charge at Albany International Airport; flight instructor

Last book read: “Adirondack Trails: Northville Placid Trail Guide Book” by the Adirondack Mountain Club

— Interview by Ken Eysaman. Edited for length and clarity to fit this space.