As the San Luis Obispo County Regional Airport moves forward with its plans for a new $25 million terminal and continues to strive for a route to Denver, Richard Howell has announced that he will step down next month as airport manager.
Howell, who took the airport’s top job in September 2008, said Friday he’s stepping down for personal reasons. While he does not have a job lined up, Howell, who vied for a similar job in Myrtle Beach, S.C., in 2010, said he and his wife plan to move to the East.
“Most of our family and friends are back there,” he said.
Succeeding Klaasje Nairne, who had been at the airport for 19 years, Howell came to San Luis Obispo in the midst of a recession that hit the airline industry hard.
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“When the price of oil hit $150 a barrel, the airline industry had no idea what it was going to do,” he said.
Because of the rising costs, Delta Connection pulled out of the airport just days before Howell took over, and American Eagle departed a couple of months later.
Meanwhile, higher fuel prices resulted in high ticket prices that caused passenger activity to plummet. In fall 2008, the airport experienced a 38 percent reduction in seat capacity.
“That was a big shot to the airport’s budget,” Howell said.
Despite that, the airport bounced back. And while some communities lost all of their airline service during that time, by mid-2010, the San Luis Obispo airport had recovered nearly 90 percent of its passengers, Howell said.
“I know he fought a good fight for us here,” said Bruce Gibson, the chairman of the county Board of Supervisors. Gibson said he was surprised by Howell’s announcement.
The supervisors will now recruit a successor, Gibson said.
“It’s a particularly challenging job in this economy,” he said, noting that the airport is important to local businesses and tourism.
While business leaders have pushed for an expansion of the airport, plans developed during Nairne’s tenure were scaled back during Howell’s leadership by a cautious Board of Supervisors because of budget concerns. While much of the new terminal would be funded with federal government grants, Gibson said data show that a new terminal alone won’t necessarily boost the airport’s finances.
“We’re not going to throw a ton of money at it to build the Taj Mahal,” he said. “The board is concerned that we make good investments.”
The expansion — which will ultimately require approval from the supervisors — is still in the design phase, and there has been no date set for completion.
Meanwhile, the airport continues to push for a route to Denver. Currently, its two airlines, US Airways and United, offer trips to Los Angeles, Phoenix and San Francisco.
Howell, who graduated from high school in Santa Barbara and attended college in Florida, has worked for numerous airports throughout the country, with stops in Waco, Texas, Colorado Springs and Albany, Ga.
His last day will be Sept. 27.