The Billion-Dollar Man
Kevin Dolliole, the new director of aviation at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, talks about why he took the job, his thoughts on the recently announced delays and what you can expect from the much-anticipated new North Terminal.
On June 26, 2017,
Kevin Dolliole became the new director of aviation at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, responsible for every detail of the facility’s daily operation, from maintaining federal safety regulations and upholding efficiency standards to deciding which concessions are available inside the facility’s terminals. Since that time, each employee, vendor, action and function has been a reflection of his work, and each in turn is a reflection of the city. This is no small amount of pressure for the director of an airport that in 2016 reported 11 million passengers and assets totaling more than $1.4 billion.
Even so, Dolliole is calm and collected. He is good at his job and has dedicated more than 40 years to the aviation industry. Perhaps it’s in his blood: His father was a defense courier in the Air Force, which meant that Dolliole was frequently on the move through his childhood and teen years.
“It made me a lot more flexible in my career and made me more willing to relocate if it appeared it would be a good move,” Dolliole said. “Growing up the way I did, if a better opportunity was there, that’s where I was.”
This is a philosophy that Dolliole has put to the test several times, starting with his entry into the aviation industry, which he never directly intended to pursue. Entertaining ideas of becoming an oil tycoon or an energy revolutionary, he attended a job fair at his college, Xavier University, met representatives from Eastern Air Lines, and was the only student to be offered a position that ultimately led him to Atlanta.
Since then, Dolliole has worked in St. Louis as director of airports at Lambert International, in San Antonio International Airport as aviation director, and spent several years with Unison Consulting helping other facilities solve efficiency and revenue challenges. Now, he is back in New Orleans to take on his most massive project to date: the $1 billion construction of the North Terminal, which spans 972,000 square feet, includes 35 gates and, according to projections, will have resulted in 13,000 construction jobs by its completion.
After some delay, the project now has an opening date of May 15, 2019, and Dolliole has his eye on the finish line — both for the project and for himself.
“No more moves,” Dolliole said. “This is it.”
|Top 10 Airports of the Decade by Growth|
|(Source: FAA data 2007-2017)|
Even though you entered aviation because of an unexpected opportunity, has it become a job of passion for you?
Absolutely. I can remember when I started with Eastern. Even after I took that job, I’d tell veterans with Eastern, “Oh, I’m just here for a couple years. When I’m finished, I’m going to work for Conoco or Texaco or somebody like that.” I remember an older agent looking at me one day when I was mouthing off like that, and he said, “Man, if you’re going to leave, I would suggest that you’re with us no longer than a couple of years. Otherwise, it’ll be in your blood, and you won’t be able to leave.” He was absolutely right. This industry draws you in. It gets into your blood. I’ve been at this since ‘76. I’ve been in this industry a long time, it’s a big part of my life, and I have a lot of passion for what I do.
What is it about the aviation industry that keeps you interested?
You hear buzz words like “dynamic” all the time, but this industry truly is dynamic. There’s constant change in this industry, and there’s constant improvement. There are always new ways to do things. In a position like mine, you can never sit back. There are constant challenges that keep the juices flowing. To be quite honest, I think they’ll flow for a few more years. There’s still a good bit of energy here. If you ever feel like you know it all, that’s when this industry will blow right by you, because you’re constantly learning. I still learn every day.
You jumped into this role in the middle of a billion-dollar project to construct the new North Terminal. Did that responsibility draw you in, or did you see it as a potential obstacle?
It was a mix. For something this significant, you’re probably better off if you’re engaged on the front end and have participated in the planning process, instead of picking up something this major in mid-stream. So, if there’s a negative, that’s it. But the upside is it’s very exciting to step into a program of this nature, and to take time to learn where it’s coming from, why certain things are set certain ways, and then taking it across the finish line.
Is that unusual in this industry?
It’s not unusual for long-term projects. The guy that initiated the program might not be the guy who will finish it. I picked up and finished a major program in St. Louis that someone else started, and someone came in after me in San Antonio and finished a program I started there. That’s kind of the nature of the beast. You’d like to be on the planning end, but at the same time, this is a once-in-a-lifetime type of project. Not many airport staff and not many airport leaders get to touch a program of this size. We have a full new facility on the opposite side of the airfield. Something like that occurs once every 10 to 12 years, so it’s special. You have to be excited about a program this special, even with the challenges it brings.
Do you think your excitement is going to show in the finished product?
Oh, yes. You probably picked up that I served for a time as a partner in an airport consulting firm [Unison Consulting] between airports. I traveled a ton, and so I’ve seen a lot of airports, but this is going to be a special facility. I guarantee you. Just moving around it and stacking it in my mind against facilities I’ve seen around the country, it’s very, very nice. It is going to be very functional as well.
Do you think the technical proficiency you learned from working as a consultant is helping you with this project?
You know, I’d spoke to something about having a broader perspective from growing up as a military dependent, and I think it’s the same with being a consultant. I was an airport director before I went to consulting, so I have my peers out there all over the country. And now I’m in my peers’ operations, seeing how things are the same and how they’re different in different airports. I’m picking up on how different structures handle similar issues, so I’m broadening my knowledge on how to deal with tough issues that airports face all the time and the unique ways to handle things. As a consultant, you’re imparting knowledge on those airports, but if you pay attention and you’re not just throwing your own knowledge out there, you pick up something everywhere you go.
Do you think that has also helped you to better understand your employees?
I think so. I do. I can appreciate the challenges they face, and maybe I’m a bit more patient as folks are working through challenges.
“This is a once-in-a-lifetime type of project. Not many airport staff and not many airport leaders get to touch a program of this size.”
How do you think or hope that this project will impact the city?
Without getting into how functional it is and how the customer experience is going to change, a project of this nature touching a city is always significant for that city. It’s going to work, I think, with all the evolving images of the city. The New Orleans I left 18 years ago is not necessarily the New Orleans I came back to. It has everything it had back then that made it popular, but there’s a vibrancy here now that wasn’t here then. There are differences in positive ways that have occurred with the industry. I think it goes with how the city’s changing and evolving, how it’s moving away from being as heavily reliant on the tourism industry alone. There are other sectors of the economy that are growing.
Why is a project like this important for the city of New Orleans specifically?
When you have an airport facility that dates back to the ‘50s, you feel it every time you move around the facility. It’s a reflection on where the region is and how progressive or not a region may be. True or not, it’s the perspective that folks get as they move through your facility. So just without all the other tangible benefits that are there, right off the bat, the city comes through in a very proactive way in a facility that’s new, modern and efficient. It’ll be a big benefit for the airlines as they operate here or function here, and that will impact the city.
You mentioned changes to the customer experience. What sort of improvements can passengers expect when the new terminal is opened?
Customer service is just going to grow exponentially. There’s a lot more you can bring into the facility that helps in processing passengers and improves the customer experience. The entire concessions program is going to be redone in the new facility. It will all be accessible to everyone. Right now, when you fly out, if you go out on B Concourse, that’s it. You’re stuck on B and the four or five locations on B. In the new facility, when you go through the checkpoint, you have access to everything. So, if you’re flying out on A and you’d like a concession on C, go take advantage of it and walk over. It’s just going to be a completely different experience there.
Are there any smaller improvements on the customer end?
Checking bags. You move through this facility now, and you see all the bag screening machines behind the ticket counters, and your bags are handled a couple of times before they ever go down into the bag makeup area. In the new facility, all of that stuff is behind the scenes and integrated into the baggage system. Now you’ll check your bag at the ticket counter and the agent will turn around and place it on a belt, and it’s done.
How did the management team decide on these improvements?
We set up a customer experience committee about 11 months ago that has worked through some short-term, smaller successes in this facility focused on improving the customer experience, and we are working through larger efforts in the customer service arena for the new facility. You’ll see a big difference there in how people are processed through the facility, along with differences in the experience and how it reflects on the region.
You’ve had a few delays in the project. What are the main causes of delays on projects this large?
We’re building on reclaimed swamp, and that presents challenges. In this environment, it isn’t about avoiding challenges, it’s about how you handle the challenges as they come about. A challenge can become a problem if you improperly handle it or can’t come up with a solution, and we’ve fortunately been able to work through solutions. The last challenge was the sewer issue, because it was a main sewer line serving that facility and because it’s such a critical piece of the infrastructure. Once it was in place, before paving over it as the next step, the contractors ran cameras through to ensure it was set and would function properly once we started operating. And we found an issue. So being proactive in that manner allowed us to stop before closing it in and come up with a solution. Now, we’re about implementing the solution.
How do you stay positive and motivated through those situations when you have to deal with potential negative feedback from the public?
You could flip your wig when something like that occurs, but what good does it do you? You work with the experts and come up with solutions and then you implement the solutions. They’re challenges, so it’s not like you just ease your way through it, and I don’t want to give that impression. But you can’t overreact either because you’ll come up with poor solutions that you may pay more for down the road.
What’s the importance of patience and perseverance to you and your career?
Life in general presents challenges, and I think patience and perseverance help you get through challenges in your personal life, your professional life, and just generally in how you engage and make decisions. Nothing’s easy, but if you’re not able to keep your wits about yourself, even if you’re the smartest person on the face of the earth, you’re going to make poor decisions over time that can impact you personally and professionally. If I’m really upset about something, particularly in my personal life, I step away from it before I deal with it and I come back with a better mind to deal with the situation than would have been the case spur of the moment.
You’ve had quite a long journey in your career. If you were able to give your younger self a piece of advice, what would that be?
“Stay the course.” I’m being honest, but there’s nothing major that I would say like, “Hey, don’t do this,” or, “Make sure you take this course and not that course.” How my career came out was almost accidental, but I was taken on the course I need to be on. I would say, “Those lessons your folks are trying to drill in your head? Hear them.” Integrity, perseverance, patience, reliability…all of that comes into play, regardless of what path you choose. That’s going to make you successful in whatever road you take. I wouldn’t change any of it.