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AIRPORT PROFILES Last modified on March 25, 2013

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DFW CEO, Jeff Fegan, talks to Benet Wilson about the airport’s $2.3 billion capital improvement programme, retirement and his legacy after nearly 20 years in the hot seat.

Aviation will literally lose one its biggest personalities on September 1 when Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport’s CEO, Jeff Fegan – who stands an imposing 6ft 3” tall – retires after clocking up close to 30 years at the Texas gateway.

He joined DFW as chief planner in December 1984 and was promoted to assistant director before taking up the role of CEO in February 1994, so Fegan has effectively been the face of the airport and its driving force for a generation.

His successor will undoubtedly have big shoes to fill (size 12s, actually), although Fegan modestly plays down his achievements, pointing out that there is still much to be done at DFW.

It is hard to argue with that, as DFW is currently in the second year of its seven-year, $2.3 billion Terminal Renewal and Improvement Program (TRIP) and has big ambitions for the future.

Indeed, such is the ambition of the airport, that it decided to start the project when the US economy was still in recession, making it harder to fund. 

The airport also happened to be in negotiations for a new use agreement with its airlines, so Fegan reveals that the airport tied the project and the agreement together and made a case to renovate buildings that were almost 40 years old. 

“We told them we were operating 40-year-old buildings with 40-year-old technology, maintenance, energy efficiency, baggage systems, parking structures and security checkpoints,” he admits.

Also, the old parking structures relied heavily on stairs, he adds, making it difficult for passengers carrying a lot of luggage. 

“Our board of directors decided that there was no point in waiting, as from their and the public’s perspective, everyone was so impressed with the work done on Terminal D, that they felt we should do the other terminals to the same quality,” says Fegan. 

“Our biggest challenge was to work with our tenant airlines to work through the renovation agreement.”

Fegan reveals that almost 70% of the TRIP budget is being spent on behind the scenes infrastructure such as cooling and heating systems, IT, electrical systems and plumbing.

He is also quick to point out that the airlines 100% support TRIP, noting that a “strong partnership” is important, as DFW and its airline customers are “in this together”. 

“They recognised the need for improvements,” remarks Fegan. “As we negotiated, we laid out a 10-year financial plan under the use agreement. They saw where the costs and revenue would be and they believed it was a good investment.”

And, he is confident that the design of the airport and its terminals will ensure the minimum of disruption to airlines and, perhaps more importantly from an image point of view, the travelling public.

“Our terminals are in a semi-circular shape, divided into three sections, each with their own with security, parking and ticketing counters,” explains Fegan. 

“We’re taking one section at a time. We put up walls and passengers don’t even know construction is taking place.”

Fegan continues: “It’ll take about a year to tear down each section and rebuild it again. That means Terminal A will be fully completed in 2015 [the first section of Terminal A opened on February 26 this year], Terminal B in 2016, Terminal C in 2017 and Terminal E in 2016.

“We’ve also re-opened the old nine-gate Delta Air Lines satellite building and we’re moving airlines there while we redo gates. Terminal B is for American Eagle, where we’re building a nine-gate stinger to add more capacity as we take sections down for reconstruction.”

These moves are a real orchestration, says Fegan. “We have four contractors working on our terminals. It’s been a dance, but it’s working.Travellers will love the new facilities.”

 

Concessions upgrade

Another major part of TRIP is a major overhaul of DFW’s concessions programme, which is focused on bringing in new local, regional and national F&B and retail stores. 

“We strive for a balance. We’re very interested in Texas brands like the Twisted Root Burger Co, Salt Lick BBQ and Ruta Maya Coffee,” enthuses Fegan. 

“We also have concepts like Texas-based Pappadeaux Seafood Kitchen and Pappacito’s Cantina which are popular, but are also trying to expand beyond Texas.”

According to Fegan, DFW’s concessions programme has significantly evolved over the last 20 years.

“Anytime we have an opportunity, we try and elevate the programme. Even Terminal D is undergoing changes,” he explains. “Passengers’ desires change over time. Some of these brands become more relevant and some become less. 

“We constantly carry out customer surveys to see what passengers want and provide the products and services to meet those needs.”

The importance for having a a good retail/F&B mix certainly hasn’t escaped Fegan’s attention, who states that he is pleased with DFW’s concessions offering that includes a variety of high-quality store and restaurant franchises.

“As part of our capital improvements, we expect the new concessions to bring in more revenue. Right now, Terminal D averages $12 spend per passenger, while Terminal A is $7. We expect that to rise when construction is completed.”

 

Achieving airline balance

DFW is the hub airport and headquarters for American Airlines, but Fegan and his team have worked hard to bring in other carriers, including British Airways, Emirates, KLM, Qantas and Virgin America. 

As a result, he is confident that the airport has successfully maintained the balance of meeting the needs of its home-town carrier while giving travellers in the region more airline options.

“If you look at our mission statement and strategic plan, it’s all about connecting the world, and it doesn’t define that by any particular airline,” muses Fegan. 

“American Airlines is our tenant and we work with them to make sure they have the capacity they need to grow. But at the same time, we are open to working with any airline that wants to be here. We market the world.”

There is certainly no disputing that under Fegan’s leadership the airport has introduced an aggressive incentives programme for any airline launching new routes to DFW.

“We now have low-cost carriers Spirit Airlines and Virgin America, which are both part of our business plan to connect to the world,” he notes.

 

Fegan’s legacy

Since becoming one of the world’s youngest airport CEOs when taking up the hot seat at DFW at the tender age of 39, Fegan has overseen the growth and development of the 18,000-acre gateway from a $217 million per year enterprise to one with more than $650 million a year in revenues. 

Fegan is credited with being instrumental in supporting American Airlines’ growth and development at the hub, making it not only the carrier’s biggest, but also the largest hub for the 12 airlines in the oneworld alliance. 

During his tenure, he brought in service from carriers including Qantas, Emirates, AeroMexico, Cayman Airways, Virgin America, Spirit Airlines and JetBlue.

Fegan led the development and implementation of DFW’s first strategic plan, in 2007, and the airport’s first master plan in 1997. 

He also successfully led the airport through multiple economic downturns, waves of airline industry restructuring and consolidation and the challenges after 9/11.

During Fegan’s 29 years, DFW also expanded its airfield capacity by adding a seventh runway and extending the four primary north-south runways by 2,000 feet each. 

In addition, he oversaw construction of the southeast perimeter taxiway, which allows aircraft to land and proceed directly to their gates without having to cross an active runway.

The likeable Fegan also oversaw the completion of a $2.8 billion capital development plan in 2005, which included construction of international Terminal D, Skylink people mover system, Grand Hyatt DFW hotel and a host of other key facilities.

They included the consolidated rental car centre, the international commerce park, the International Air Cargo Center, DFW’s Corporate Aviation, the Founders’ Plaza observation center, Fire Training Research Center and the DFW Airport Wellness Center.

So what does Fegan consider to have been the greatest success of his near 20-year tenure? “I think my biggest legacy is that we developed an airport organisation that is high performing and entrepreneurial,” he says. 

“I’m proud to have worked with a strong group of professionals who have given us the capacity and capability to do things I couldn’t have imagined 20 years ago. We’ve created a fantastic airport as a result.”

Fegan’s piece of advice to his successor is to make sure that they consider, listen to and take care of all DFW’s stakeholders. 

“There are so many, that you have to be concerned with accommodating them,” suggests Fegan. “DFW is a complicated enterprise, so you have to recognise the interests of all stakeholders.

“You have to be patient and accommodate as many of those agendas as possible. If you get locked in one direction, you will fail.”

Everyone plays a role in the success of the airport, so consider that when making decisions, says Fegan. “And never forget the employees. They are such a powerful force. They make it happen every day. They make it successful.”

Fegan’s enthusiasm and love for the job he has held for so long is evident every time he speaks about DFW, so why has he decided to retire now when he clearly could have continued for years to come? 

“People have asked me why I’m leaving right now, especially since there will be a lot of changes taking place in the next five years, but it just feels right,” replies Fegan.

“It is an exciting time and DFW is posting rapid growth. It’s not only in our terminal renewal, but building a station for the Dallas light rail, and a similar project is coming from Fort Worth. We’re also doing massive road construction that will bring new transit and highway access.”

He also believes that in five years from now, DFW will be in an even better position to achieve its mission of connecting the world.

“The airport is the engine of growth for North Texas. We are a catalyst for economic development, trade and tourism. We are responsible for never being an obstacle of growth for the region.

“We will make sure we continue to play that role. By the end of the TRIP programme in 2018, passengers will be very pleased with our new facilities, along with the chance to fly anywhere in the world.”

I’ve got a feeling Fegan is going to miss DFW, and without a doubt, the airport he has served so well for so long will miss him, too!

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