Solomon Balraj is director of airports for the Greater Peoria Regional and Mt. Hawley Auxiliary airports. He’s responsible for managing all operations of the non-hub, air carrier airport with military bases and general aviation.
Among his professional positions before coming to Peoria in 2002, Balraj worked for the City of Cleveland, spending part of his career as an integral part of the Cleveland Hopkins International Airport and the Burke Lakefront Airport expansion. Also an attorney, he served as assistant director of Law for Development and Properties, including handling a real estate transaction with the Cleveland Board of Education.
Balraj currently serves on the Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce, the PACC Transportation Committee, the Peoria/Pekin Urbanized Area Transportation Study Technical Committee, the Greater Peoria Vision 2020 Economic Development Task Force, and the Non Hub General Aviation Airports and Airline Economics and Air Service Committees for the American Association of Airport Executives.
He and his fiancée, Lisa, will be married in August.
Tell about your background: schools attended, family, etc. Why did you choose to accept this position in Peoria?
I was born in India. My father came to the United States to get his master’s at John Carroll University, located in a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio, in the early 1970s. I became a United States citizen in 1979. My parents still reside in the Cleveland area. I have a sister who teaches at Kent State University as a library professor.
I received my Bachelor of Arts degree from Case Western Reserve University in 1988, majoring in economics and biology. In 1992, I also received a Juris Doctor from Case Western Reserve University.
After law school, I worked for three years in the City of Cleveland’s legal department as an assistant law director. I focused on economic and community development, planning, contracts, and litigation related to contracts and appropriation.
After three years in the legal department, I was promoted by former Mayor Michael R. White to assistant director of Cleveland’s Economic Development Department. For the three years I worked in Cleveland’s Economic Development Department, I focused on strengthening Cleveland’s economic programs and processes so businesses could get needed assistance in a non-bureaucratic manner. Also, in 1997, I was the city’s designated coordinator for both the 1997 Major League Baseball and National Basketball Association All-Star games. Being a sport’s fan, I was in heaven. The new ball stadium here in Peoria is tremendous. It reminds me of how Cleveland began changing its image with Jacobs Field complex.
During my tenure at Cleveland Hopkins International Airport, I held many positions, including director. I’m most proud of project managing for the city the construction of the very first consolidated rental car facility and the construction and completion of a $140 million concourse for Continental Airlines. In addition, we obtained FAA approval for more than $640 million in improvements to increase the efficiency of Hopkins runway.
I was attracted to the position in Peoria because of the potential in the airport and its facilities. In addition, the greater Peoria community had so much to offer. The board is ready to move the airport forward in even more dynamic ways.
Describe your job in general and what you do on a day-to-day basis.
In general, I work with both my board and staff to ensure the core missions for the airport. At the present time, our central focus is on air service development. In addition, we’re planning to update our facilities in a cost-effective manner. Daily responsibilities are extremely varied-from security and building and field maintenance to lease negotiations and representing the airport in many civic and business forums.
We have a great staff of 41 dedicated full- and part-time employees making sure each visitor has a wonderful experience at our airport.
How does your background in law and economic development assist in your position as director of airports?
An airport has complex issues like land use, federal and state regulations, and financing, and operates like a small municipality with snow removal, building and facility needs, security, and utility needs. My legal training has allowed me to be very successful in many different forums and situations. Not only looking at an issue or problem, but developing a solution to address both the immediate issue and establishing a process to hopefully avoid the issue in the future. My development experience has allowed me to use my legal training in a practical manner as a client, which lets me look at opportunities from many different perspectives.
The airline industry has seen major changes in the way it operates in the past couple of years. How has this affected the GPRA?
The airline hub and spoke system was been under tremendous cost pressures even before September 11, 2001. In addition, in the early to mid-1990s, the legacy carriers-American, United, Continental, Northwest, Delta, US Airways, and America West-locked themselves into large labor contracts. September 11, SARS, and the downturn in the economy, along with these higher costs, have resulted in the “perfect storm” for the airline industry. As a result, we’ve seen the industry going through major changes to adapt, reducing capacity by cutting flights, re-negotiating labor contracts, and using bankruptcy to re-structure and shed costs.
Communities like Peoria, which doesn’t have the population or size of a larger metro area, have seen significant cuts in service. In 2003, we’re down almost 14 percent in passengers from the prior year. The majority of that loss stems from a decrease in flights and destinations.
Explain how GPRA’s runway length, etc., gives it an edge over other regional airports.
We have a great airport facility, notwithstanding that the terminal is quite dated. The bread and butter of any airport is its airfield and land. Our two runways are 10,500 feet and 8,003 feet. The 10,000-foot runway is the longest runway in downstate Illinois. Also, GPRA sits on approximately 3,500 acres of real estate, with the potential for easily acquiring more land. By not being land-locked, GPRA has much more flexibility, as major development opportunities-such as a DHL or Boeing project-arise. In addition, GPRA houses a 24-hour FAA tower, which once again puts the airport in a much better position for commercial and cargo air service.
You’ve overseen the move of the gift shop and positioning of screening devices at GPRA, along with a business center and more. How have these improvements been received?
The feedback has been positive. Both the checkpoint and screening devices for the checked baggage have met our expectations. TSA has done a wonderful job in processing the passengers in a very positive, customer service-oriented manner.
The Up, Up and Away Gift Shop has demonstrated our board’s commitment to first-class, quality upgrades to our facility.
Another new business that’s been totally redesigned is the airport restaurant/snack shop. Tell about that revamp and how Parc is affiliated.
Parc is the airport operator of the restaurant, Perfect Landing. Parc’s core mission is to provide services to the disabled citizens in our community. As governmental funding became less and less available, Parc formed a not-for-profit organization to supplement its income. The board, being very supportive of tri-county-based organizations, entered into a concession agreement with Parc. While developing a new food service operation at the airport, Parc has been very diligent in having extremely high standards in service and food.
The redesign of the restaurant pre-dated me. However, Parc made significant investments in the facility, with limitations on how the space could be re-configured. The openness of the space has allowed Parc to host evening events and group lunches and dinners.
There’s always talk of “use it or lose it,” referencing air service in and out of Peoria. How do you compete price-wise, however, with ticket costs going out of Bloomington, the Quad cities, and even St. Louis or Chicago?
Pricing is a major driver for both the business and leisure travelers. The mid- to late 1990s business travel won’t return in the same form-high walk-up fares. We’ve hired a new marketing manager, Sandi Gebhardt. Sandi is working on a daily basis to check airfares across the board to our top leisure and business destinations to ensure we’re competitively priced by the airlines. In addition, Sandi works with our many fine travel agencies and business travel coordinators to monitor pricing.
We’ve found if we stay within $50 to $75 of our competitors to most destinations, we don’t experience major leakage, especially with our business traveler. A drive to Chicago will probably take you at least three hours, and then you need to deal with a major hub airport parking and security. It’s difficult and challenging, but we’re working hard to ensure good pricing and reliability with our air service.
How important is air travel to the economic development of our region?
The airport’s health is directly tied to this region’s economic wellbeing. A state Economic Impact Study demonstrated the airport’s annual impact is at least $328 million, which is $138.7 million direct, $28.9 million indirect, and $161 million induced. The airport generates approximately 3,300 full-time jobs and 264 part-time jobs. Major employers like Caterpillar, Keystone Steel & Wire, Maui Jim, RLI, Morton Metalcraft, the hospitals, and educational institutions like Bradley University and U of I College of Medicine all need the efficiencies in the air transportation system, with better point-to-point air service, to remain competitive and to produce real growth.
Initiatives like Peoria NEXT, the new Port Authority, the Civic Center expansion, the new Lakeview museum, and the expansion of the Peoria Zoo and Luthy Botanical Garden are all dependent in many ways on the strength of air service into our region. Small, growing companies being fostered by Peoria NEXT need efficient air service to compete in the global marketplace. Regional draws like the zoo, museum, and civic center events are going after a larger market more and more.
Given the financial difficulties of the airline industry, will Peoria be able to pick up other low-cost carriers in the near future?
For our region, the effect of a low-cost carrier is a bit uncertain in the current market condition, as evidenced by American’s recent announcement to cease all St. Louis service out of Moline, the drastic reduction in Springfield, and no new O’Hare service. Though we lost significant St. Louis service, we’ll have the largest American service out of the downstate airports. The primary reasons are our community support for the service and profitably of our airport, versus our competitors with low-cost service. Yet we need pricing discipline in our market to increase our users. We’re evaluating all of our options, including the possibility of a true low-cost carrier.
What’s your prediction of how business air travel will be in the future? What about leisure air travel?
Business travel will eventually come back to the high volume seen in the 1990s. The economic cycle has always had ups and downs. However, business travel will remain price sensitive. This price sensitivity will force the airlines to adapt their business model and move away from their reliance on the walk-up business fare as a major portion of their revenue. Carriers that adapt will survive, and carriers that don’t will be extinct-like Eastern and TWA.
On the other side, leisure travelers are enjoying great airfares. However, these airfares are bringing in a very low margin of profit, if any, to the legacy carriers. These great airfares may not continue in the future. The key will be the long-term success of the other low-cost carriers like Air Tran, ATA, and Jet Blue as they grow, and whether these carriers maintain their current business model and costs.
What can the chambers of commerce and regional businesses do to help protect our air service in central Illinois?
First, we have an excellent relationship with our regional partners. We’re working very closely with the EDC on air service issues. In addition, all the area chambers assisted in gathering critical travel information from their business members. We also work very closely with the Tri-County Planning Commission. They assisted both in our leakage study and landscaping design support for our new parking lot. Our board, in partnership with PACVB President Keith Arnold, recently announced a new meet-and-greet program with the Peoria Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. This shows air service is a top priority for the community.
If you operate a business, please utilize your airport for your air service needs. In addition, we ask everyone to please tell us what they like and dislike about the air service in our community by filling out our customer and/or business surveys on our Web site at www.flypia.com. Also, each business has a stake in the success of air service in our community. Whether directly or indirectly, a company’s ability to grow is tied to the movement of goods and/or people.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the support of our elected officials. Congressman Ray LaHood has provided leadership with continued funding support and other issues such as ensuring adequate TSA equipment and staffing. In addition, all of our state legislators have been available to us, especially Sen. Shadid and Rep. Leitch. In addition, we’ve received strong support of our initiatives through open communications with all of the area mayors. GPRA is also an active member of Mayor Ransburg’s Transportation Committee for Vision 2020.
What are the misperceptions people may have regarding the GPRA?
Many people still don’t know about our free parking and shuttle service. Also, they should check our pricing because we’re much more competitive than the general public’s impression. Delta service to Atlanta gave us a great service to the southeast. American service-daily flights to Chicago after November 1-along with the four daily flights currently offered by United, gives us better reliability in getting our folks back and forth from Chicago. Also, the reliability, both through Chicago and St. Louis, has improved greatly from three or four years ago. We monitor the airlines’ completion factor, which is the percentage of flights that aren’t cancelled due to weather or mechanical issues. For example, American through St. Louis is consistently in the 98 percentile or higher.
What’s your advice to local business people considering using airports other than GPRA?
The long-term economic growth and vitality of our community is dependent on good air service. Education, low business costs, affordable housing, and other factors are key as well, but without air service, the engine won’t run efficiently. We aren’t asking you to support us blindly, but be involved to ensure your airport delivers the necessary cargo and commercial air service to meet the community’s needs.
What are your plans for the GPRA in the future-new additions, shops, services, regulations, etc.?
Our passengers and guests will see some exciting improvements at our airport, which improve both customer service and security. Our board and staff are extremely focused on the passenger/customer experience at the airport.
The most immediate improvement is a new wireless Internet system throughout the majority of the air terminal and concourse. By the time you read this article, it should be up and running so passengers can connect to the Internet. Also, your readers will be seeing a complete renovation of our parking lot facility-adding about 300 spaces, new lighting, and shuttle bus drop-off shelters. In addition, we just started scoping out a project for new flight display monitors throughout both the air terminal and concourse, including a modern paging system. We hope to have this project underway by the end of this year. Behind the scenes, we’re modernizing our gate and air terminal security systems, including new and additional cameras. The additional security will further ensure travelers’ safety when using Peoria’s airport. IBI