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MANCHESTER - Mayor Ted Gatsas has grounded employees at Manchester-Boston Regional Airport from traveling on business until further notice after he called the airport's travel during the previous budget year "excessive."
"It shouldn't just be an open checkbook," Gatsas said last week.
But airport executives say the mayor has signed off on every trip and that the state's largest airport - funded by user fees and not city property taxes - was 30 percent under its budget for travel, conferences and meetings in the year that ended June 30.
"Just because the money's there doesn't mean we spend it," Airport Director Mark Brewer said.
Brewer is drawing criticism for traveling 61 days during 2012, including 16 weekend days or holidays, to woo airlines for more service and to attend industry events in Hawaii, California and other locales at a time when the airport continues to record declines in the number of flying passengers, according to a New Hampshire Sunday News review.
The city's highest-paid employee at nearly $216,000 annually, Brewer serves as first vice chairman of the American Association of Airport Executives, an Alexandria, Va.-based group of 5,000-plus members that lobbies the federal government and offers accreditation programs for airport executives.
But some wonder who's really benefiting.
"The perception out there was Manchester airport was not his priority; it was the association," said former North End Alderman David Wihby, who served on the Manchester Airport Authority until his term ended last spring. "I was hearing it all over the place."
But Brewer said he has sat next to top officials from the Federal Aviation Administration and the Transportation Security Administration at AAAE events, building relationships that could prove beneficial later. "Having a seat at the table (with decision makers) is important," he said.
"We have volunteered for pilot programs" and been chosen, he said.
In response to the criticism, airport officials produced a letter, signed by Gatsas, that supported Brewer's nomination to the organization's executive committee.
"The City of Manchester, through its Department of Aviation, is prepared to support both the time and travel required for service to this prestigious organization," Gatsas said in a letter dated Feb. 8, 2010. "The City acknowledges that this is a six-year commitment and that attendance at several meetings per year will be required."
Brewer is expected to become the association's chairman in May in Reno, Nev. Brewer said the AAAE was preparing an estimate of his travel schedule as chairman. He said he expected to take more than five additional trips during the year he serves as chairman.
Wihby said those unhappy with the airport included Wiggins Airways, which provides fuel to all commercial airplanes as well as other services to some airlines.
"Wiggins is upset," Wihby said.
Contacted by the Sunday News, Wiggins President Jim Thomforde on Friday declined to share his views on how the airport is run.
"I'd rather not get into it," Thomforde said. "We're in a tenuous position here. I'd rather not comment about it. There's enough people who know what goes on at the airport besides me."
Executive Councilor Ray Wieczorek, a former Manchester mayor, called Brewer's leadership in the AAAE "a double-edged sword. . . . That brings us a little fame, no fortune. The question is: Can his time be better spent?"
Bob Dastin, chairman of the Manchester Airport Authority, said he doesn't see "any pitfalls" to Brewer's leadership post.
"If anything, it brings to the airport . . . a great deal of favorable publicity, that we've got a person who is executive director of an airport who is distinguished enough to be selected by his colleagues countrywide as the leader of that organization," Dastin said. "We're very proud of Mark and his accomplishments and think it's something the city ought to be very proud of."
But Gatsas said he was concerned the airport spent about $43,000 on travel during the last fiscal year, which ended June 30. That money covered 23 of 26 airport trips taken by airport workers during those 12 months. AAAE paid for the other three trips.
Airport officials said they spent $45,738 on travel, conferences and meetings out of a $65,800 budget. For the current year, which is nearly half over, the airport has spent about 26 percent of its budget allotment for that category, according to Deputy Airport Director Brian O'Neill.
The mayor's temporary travel ban has meant he hasn't approved a request for Brewer to be away on travel Jan. 3 to 11 to attend an AAAE annual conference in Maui, Hawaii, that the organization would pay for.
Asked the status of that request, the mayor said: "We will certainly have to have that discussion."
Brewer said the delay will mean a higher airplane bill for the association. He said waiting for approval from the mayor's office has resulted in higher airfares sometimes.
Among Brewer's 16 trips during 2012, he visited executives at five airlines, including a meeting in Toronto with officials from Porter Airlines "to discuss potential air service," according to an email from the airport requesting trip approval from the mayor.
He also made trips to meet with officials from Southwest, United, USAirways and Delta, all of which currently offer flights out of Manchester.
After three airport officials, including Brewer, met with Southwest officials in Dallas last August, a memo describing the trip's benefits stated: "Southwest Airlines and MHT walked away from the meeting with action items to help develop advertising and route strategies."
O'Neill said a trip made to New York City to meet with bond-rating agencies resulted in the airports saving $10 million over 20 years when refinancing some airport bonds.
Travel records indicate 50 of Brewer's travel days were tied to AAAE-related business. But many airport executives without leadership roles typically attend at least one event, according to several airport directors.
For instance, Airport Director Paul Bradbury from the Portland (Maine) International Jetport attended an AAAE conference in Phoenix for five days, and his deputy, Scott Carr, attended two AAAE events, for a total of 10 days, according to a list of travel dates provided by Bradbury.
Kevin Dillon, Manchester's airport director until 2007, said he averaged eight to 10 trips a year while in Manchester for "what I call the marketing trips to market to the airlines."
Dillon, who now heads the Connecticut Airport Authority, wouldn't comment on Brewer's travels, but he said it was good for airport executives to stay current with industry trends and that was best accomplished by interacting with their peers. He said Brewer's post will benefit the Manchester airport.
"If you're chairman of AAAE, you will be interacting with congressional leadership" as well as top officials from the FAA and TSA, he said.
"You have the ability to shape policy as it relates to the industry and relates specifically to your airport," said Dillon, who serves on AAAE's policy review committee.
Wieczorek, who sits on the board of directors of Wiggins Airways, agreed the leadership post "would bring some prestige for him." But, he added: "What does it do for the problems we have at the airport?"
Asked about criticism of him, Brewer said: "It's an easy target to blame Brewer."
O'Neill said airlines have released flight schedules through August 2013. Between January and August, Manchester's airlines will offer 257 more seats in total than during the same time this year.
Passenger totals for the first 10 months of this year were off 9.6 percent at the airport from the same period last year.
In September, the Sunday News reported that airlines at Manchester this fall will offer 45 percent fewer departing flights than they did five years ago - three times the decline nationwide, according to figures from Airlines for America, whose members and affiliates transport more than 90 percent of all U.S. airline passenger and cargo traffic.
Wihby recommends the charter commission, which is considering modifications to the city charter, give the Manchester Airport Authority more power. He said aldermen don't scrutinize the airport budget as closely as they do the budgets of the police, fire and other city departments because no city tax funds are used.
"Maybe, it's time for the authority to look at it," he said, adding the Board of Mayor and Aldermen should retain final approval.?Brewer didn't dismiss the suggestion out of hand, saying he would be willing to sit down and discuss the concept.
In the case of Portland airport executives, Bradbury took two trips during 2012 to conferences in Phoenix and Calgary, Alberta. Carr made 11 trips, to meet with airlines or attend conferences this year.
Bradbury said "it would be inappropriate to directly compare my current travel commitments" to Brewer's since Bradbury isn't in a leadership role like his counterpart.
"I also want to reiterate that Mark Brewer, as first vice chair of the American Association of Airport Executives, is providing a critically important leadership role that represents airports and airport interests on the national level," Bradbury said.