As Wilmington International Airport grows, so does the challenge of keeping customers happy
By Dana Sachs
Julie Wilsey: Director, Wilmington International Airport
What is the career path that leads to running an airport?
There are schools that offer a bachelor’s degree in aviation management. That’s the modern pathway to a career in airport management. I started as an Army engineer officer. I just happened to luck into the job at ILM as the facilities director in 1999, and then I fell in love with aviation.
And you were a paratrooper in the Army?
Yes. I was a paratrooper and a jumpmaster for about six ½ years. I went to West Point and one summer they sent me to airborne school in Fort Benning, Georgia, where they teach you how to jump out of airplanes. So eventually, when I went into the Army as an officer, I went to jumpmaster school, which meant that I was putting the paratroopers out of the aircraft.
Did you love jumping out of planes?
No. I did it because it was an important way to guide my career in the Army. I had expected to be in the Army for 20 years. But along the way I fell in love with another soldier, and it became easier for him to finish his career in the Army and for me to find a civilian career.
You’ve been at ILM for 20 years, and you’ve served as director for the last five. What kind of passenger growth have you seen in recent years?
We grew by 12 percent last year, and we’re at 15 percent growth year to date for 2019. We added United Airlines, our third airline, in April of 2018. It’s going very well. They have a flight to Chicago and two a day to Washington Dulles. American Airlines also added new destinations last year — Dallas/Fort Worth and Reagan National in Washington, D.C. They also fly to Philadelphia, Charlotte, and New York LaGuardia. That’s a popular one. And then we have Delta that goes to Atlanta. So we have eight nonstop destinations every day, with three carriers. That’s a very strong network for our travelers.
Is the airport near capacity now?
We have room now, but at peak times during the day things get a little tight. We have six gates, and during the morning fleet launch — the first flights, which are from 5:30 to 7:30 — they are using all six. It’s the busiest time of day. In fact, 750 people have left this community before most of us come to work at 7:45.
You’ve embarked on an airport expansion, so what changes can we expect over the next few years?
We’re going to have nine gates when we’re finished in 2022. We’ll see new amenities and a new focus on concessions and services in the terminal. We received over 4,000 responses to a survey we conducted in July, so we’re trying to get an idea of what people would like in terms of amenities. We take a lot of our cues from other airports across the country of about the same size. So, we’ll model ourselves after someone who’s having success with a type of food or beverage or vendor.
What kinds of things do ILM customers like?
They love the bars. There’s a bar with windows at the end of the gate area. They love that bar with the view.
Any chance that we’ll get additional flights?
We are starting to focus on some low-fare carriers. That means we’re looking at some other airlines, maybe a twice-a-week flight. I don’t want to give names. One of our long-term goals is to attract a low-fare carrier to serve some of our leisure markets and help inbound tourism to Wilmington.
So we might become more competitive with Myrtle Beach or Raleigh?
I’m not sure I’m ever going to match prices dollar for dollar with some of those bigger airports, but we want to make sure people see the value of using the local airport. Your time is worth something.
What do you do day-to-day as the airport director?
The employees at ILM and our partners do all the hard work. The building is open 24 hours a day, every day of the year. The flights arrive and depart, arrive and depart. On a good day, it is a very well-choreographed dance. When I get to work at quarter of eight, the busiest part of the day has already occurred. I catch up with what happened overnight. I attend meetings on behalf of the airport. I speak to civic organizations. Today, I had to write to Senator Thom Tillis on the impact of hurricanes on the airport.
What might surprise me if I went “backstage” at ILM?
You would be surprised how many people it takes to run the airport. There are airline employees behind the scenes. Rooms of people working on your bags. People preparing meals and taking inventory. Rental car staff. And they do it every day. We don’t close. At midnight, we just start over. Fifty of us work for the airport authority, but there are also many partners in the building. Probably close to 600 people work here.
When you go to other airports, what are you thinking about?
I am a very inquisitive traveler. At any airport, I will check out the bathrooms. I like to see the good, the bad, and the latest in restroom designs. It’s very interesting. I look at concession spaces. I judge them. I say, “These are nice and neat.” Or, “These are a little shabby.” I look at the phone charging machines. And the new seating that has electric chargers. I take pictures of something I think is clever. And then I’ll get down on the ground and take photos of the data plates, because that’s where you can see the company that makes it. My husband, if he’s with me, he rolls his eyes, but he’s gotten used to it over the years. I’m an airport geek.
What’s the newest thing in airport bathrooms?
Stacked stone. New colors of subway tile. Some of the stalls have devices that you wave your hand in front of them and they release an air freshener. And I always compare the size of the stalls. Is there room for my suitcase? Does the door open in? Does the door open out? I always practice what I call the “suitcase sashay,” which is, “How do I get in the stall with my suitcase and close the door?” That’s a big deal to a traveler.
When you travel, what time do you arrive at the airport to catch your flight?
When I’m flying out of Wilmington, I have a parking space, but I still get to the airport an hour and 15 minutes before my flight.
Why so early?
Because it would be really embarrassing for me to miss my flight at my own airport.
Dana Sachs’ latest novel, The Secret of the Nightingale Palace, is available at bookstores, online and throughout Wilmington.