Parkite lands in key role
February 19, 2014
Maureen Riley has had a place in Park City since 1994 and moved here full-time in 2007 when she assumed her current job — executive director for the Salt Lake City Department of Airports.
When she started out her professional career as an accountant, it’s not where she necessarily saw herself ending up.
"Typically, what happens to people in public accounting is eventually they get hired away by a client. And that’s what happened to me. The client at the time who hired me away was Orlando International Airport. So, early in my career I could have followed a lot of different industries, I guess." The industries she did auditing for, prior to Orlando’s airport, included "a TV station, a cattle ranch [and] a paper company."
When Riley finished her 13 years at Orlando International Airport, she was the airport’s deputy executive director of finance and administration. The switch to Salt Lake City International Airport brought an entirely new set of challenges.
"Orlando, for example, is an origination destination airport. So most of the traffic that goes through there, the passenger traffic, it’s a tourist destination," she said. "Salt Lake, on the other hand, about half the traffic is hubbing traffic, so these are people that never see the parking garage, they never see the curb, they’re just here to change planes. So those kinds of characteristics really affect the way the business model works from airport to airport."
Perhaps Riley’s biggest task in her current job is a major redevelopment project at SLC International Airport. The project will include construction of a new terminal, a new parking garage and new rental-car facilities, Riley says.
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Riley describes the project as "a program that’s been discussed in some version or some format here for maybe the last 17 years or so It’s really a discussion about the airport for the future."
"The existing facility is in many respects more than 50 years old, so that brings with it a certain type of problem, especially how it relates to infrastructure. And we do have some parts of the airport where the infrastructure is in need of repair, replacement, heavy maintenance. So a decision had to be made — and this discussion started in the mid-90s — do we renovate what we have or are there other reasons to just start over? So we went through a process over the last few years with the airlines and the decision was made in SLC to really start over. The existing facility didn’t function properly for the hub characteristics," she explained.
"In addition to that, we’re looking at ways that we can better seismic-proof the facility — the current facility is, let’s call it inconsistent, in seismic proofing," Riley added.
Riley does not appear to be shying away from the challenge.
"It’s really exciting," she said, "when you take a big project like this – and if you think about it, there are virtually no new airports planned for this country. There are lots of airports that in some way or form have to renovate or improve their facilities, but it’s very seldom that a whole new terminal is built in this country, so we’re excited about that, and it’s the right solution."
That lack of new airport construction, Riley noted, is tied to what she identifies as the most significant challenge for U.S. airports going forward – funding.
"I think funding is always a challenge. Airports in this country are not funded by local taxes in any way; they’re funded by user fees, so they’re self-sustaining. So the airlines that use airports pay landing fees they pay rental fees for the space that they use. Concessionaires, rental cars, the food and beverage outlets — all those users of the airport pay a fee for the privilege of operating at the airport, and that’s how airports are funded," she said.
"Because of the underlying business deals at each airport, it’s sometimes a challenge to find a common performance indicator" to compare the financial situations at different airports, Riley said.
"But what the industry has used for many years is something called the cost per in plane passenger. That really is defined as how much it costs airlines to operate in any given airport. So in Salt Lake’s case, the cost per passenger is in the $4 range — considered very low in the industry. And that is mostly attributed to the fact that we have no outstanding debt. On the other hand, the trade-off is, we have an aging facility. So, usually if you find an airport with a lot of debt, you’ll find a terminal facility that’s been modernized or replaced. So, we will have debt when our project is complete," she said.
Though she’s now a Utahn, Riley maintains at least one deep connection to her roots.
"I’m a Jersey girl," she says, implying that no other explanation is necessary for the 112 (and counting) Bruce Springsteen concerts she has attended.
"There are some years that he takes off and he doesn’t tour," she noted. "But I can say I’ve seen at least one show on every tour."