Traffic at Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport has been in a slump since People Express Airlines started, and quickly failed, to launch service — except for one select group: executives of the Peninsula Airport Commission.
Former Executive Director Ken Spirito’s travel bill approached $80,000 over the past three years, a Daily Press review of hundreds of pages of records requested through the Freedom of Information Act found. Most of the trips were for aviation conventions, with destinations including London, San Juan, San Diego and Las Vegas.
His nearly four dozen trips included only six the records described as calls on airlines he was trying to lure to the airport. Two were to Elite Airways, which said it would come but later put its plans on hold because of what it called “the challenging perceptions surrounding the Newport News/Williamsburg International Airport.”
Total travel expense for commission staff rose from just under $44,000 in fiscal year 2015 to $51,375 last year and $60,150 so far this year. The fiscal year ends June 30.
Jessica Wharton, the airport’s marketing and air service director, racked up more than $30,000 worth of travel for some two dozen trips, often, as is common practice for other airports’ marketing executives, traveling with her boss.
She said the conferences airport staff attend usually include at least eight one-on-one meetings with airlines.
“Oftentimes, the airlines will ask us to meet with them at a conference rather than headquarters. Staff goes where the airlines are in an effort to continually be in front of them,” she said.
Former commission chairwoman LaDonna Finch was reimbursed more than $2,200 for her hotel room to attend the Paris Air Show in 2013.
The airport commission fired Spirito last month for using several thousand dollars of its funds for personal expenses, none of which involved his travel.
He had been on paid leave, receiving his $223,000-a-year salary, for 10 weeks at that point, pending results of a Virginia Department of Transportation audit of the commission’s use of taxpayer funds to pay off People Express’ $4.5 million debt to TowneBank. That audit has expanded to cover the past few years of the commission’s operations, and among the information the commission eventually provided to the state were staff and commissioners’ expense records.
The commission this spring put in place a new travel policy, since it had not previously required anyone to approve travel or expenses claimed by the executive director. Chairman George Wallace and interim Executive Director Sandy Wanner have said their current aim is to tighten procedures to make sure abuses don’t occur in the future.
“I think the purpose is legitimate, to go to conventions to recruit airlines, to go to conferences for continuing education for certifications,” Wanner. “But it was like, you want to go, you go … I don’t think the commissioners really knew how much traveling was going on.”
Wanner said after the loss of AirTran service five years ago, airport executives seem to have traveled more than is typical, trying to get new business for Newport News/Williamsburg.
The commission’s travel records show, among other things:
•Spirito and Wharton spent more than $6,200 on a five-day trip to London in July 2014, with Spirito’s expenses including a $109 sightseeing bus tour and a $572 meal at a steakhouse.
•The two spent more than $6,000 for a two-day aviation conference in San Juan last year.
•They spent more than $5,500 for a three-day aviation conference in Las Vegas in February of this year.
•Their attendance at a three-day Chicago aviation conference in the summer of 2014 cost the airport commission more than $3,300.
In the hectic month of May 2015 — the month after the commission cut a check to pay off the People Express debt to TowneBank — the commission spent more than $9,500 on a retreat for the airport commission’s directors in Washington, Spirito’s attendance at the annual conference of the American Association of Airline Executives in Philadelphia, a trip by Spirito and Wharton to an aviation conference in Denver and another to the Airports Council International’s annual “JumpStart” event, held that year in Seattle.
The Seattle trip was for one of the annual “speed-dating” events the Airports Council hosts, where airport and airline executives sit down for a round robin of what are typically 20-minute face-to-face meetings. Roanoke Regional Airport director Tim Bradshaw said the event is on his must-do list.
Roanoke, where four airlines provide service to eight cities, sets a $30,000-a-year budget for travel to drum up airline business. Bradshaw said he and airport marketing director Bradley Boettcher routinely travel together on those trips.
Bradshaw said he doesn’t bother with the big aviation conferences, such as those Spirito and Wharton attended in London, San Juan, Denver, San Diego, Chicago and Las Vegas, because of the cost. Smaller airports can get lost in the crowd, he said.
The Peninsula commission’s records also showed it spent freely on staff events, including more than $5,800 for a commission retreat at the Williamsburg Lodge in January.
In addition to Finch’s trip to Paris, former commissioner Aubrey Fitzgerald billed the commission $1,809 to attend the Virginia Aviation Conference at the plush Homestead Resort in 2016 and $1,075 for the 2015 conference. Former Newport News City Manager Jim Bourey, who was also an airport commissioner, billed the commission $839 for trips to New York and Portland, Maine, described in the records as visits with airlines.
Spirito, Fitzgerald and Bourey were the three airport commissioners who voted to empower Finch to sign an agreement promising to pay off any People Express Airlines debt to TowneBank using taxpayer funds in a motion that did not say that was what they intended to do. The motion was written by the airport’s then-lawyer, Herbert V. Kelly Jr., who was a member of TowneBank’s Peninsula board at the time. Finch’s term expired shortly after that. Bourey resigned before the meeting at which the commission put Spirito on leave, ended its relationship with Kelly and promised to address state auditors’ month-old complaints about unavailable records. Fitzgerald was removed from the commission by the Newport News City Council.
Ress can be reached by phone at 757-247-4535.