Syracuse Hancock Int'l Transitions From City to Public Airport Authority

Carroll McCormick
Published in: 

After operating Syracuse Hancock International Airport (SYR) since 1946, the city of Syracuse, NY, is gradually turning the facility over to a public authority: the Syracuse Regional Airport Authority (SRAA). Once the process is completed, likely by year's end, officials expect to be in a better position to respond to the needs of the three million people in the airport's catchment area.

"The SRAA was created because we all recognize that the airport is an airport to more than just the people in the city of Syracuse or Onondaga County," explains Christina Reale, commissioner of aviation with the city of Syracuse. "The SRAA can act and make decisions that are in the best interests of the airport and of the people throughout the region. This will let it operate more efficiently and effectively."

The ability to make decisions that financially benefit the airport is a key issue. Last October, for example, the SRAA initiated a process to replace city police officers with a private firm that will provide airport security and police officers at the airport. The move is expected to save $2 million. According to a city press release, 83% of the airport's current $4.1 million security budget is spent on overtime wages for police.


Project: Establishing Public Airport Authority

Location: Syracuse (NY) Hancock Int'l Airport

History: City-run since 1946

Key Benefits: Ability to qualify for better loan rates; capacity to change vendor agreements & make other strategic financial decisions

Among other issues, the SRAA will also be reviewing the airport's advertising concession agreement, which expires in March, and the food/beverage and retail concessions contract with Delaware North Hospitality and Travel Services, which expires in 2013.

Another priority is economic development of the airport's 2,000-acre property. "We are in the process of conducting an inventory of the airport," Reale reports. "Then, we can decide what the uses can be for it."
Overall, the airport authority is intent on increasing revenue, decreasing expenses and encouraging travelers to choose SYR. 

A Vanishing Breed
According to Reale, SYR is one of the last remaining airports of its size in New York not governed by a public authority - and that difference could put it at a disadvantage when competing for passengers.

In an effort to elicit a broad view and encompass representation from the entire region the airport serves, the authority includes members appointed from a variety of entities: the city of Syracuse, Onondaga County, the towns of Cicero and Dewitt, and the East Syracuse Minoa School District. "They are in a position to bring their experience and knowledge of business and the community into their decision-making," Reale explains.

Procedurally, the transition began with the Syracuse Common Council adopting what is called a home rule message requesting that the New York Legislature amend the public authority law to create the SRAA. Next, the city created enabling legislation, which went to the state legislature for approval. Last August, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed the legislation into law, thereby officially creating the SRAA.

As a public authority, the SRAA must comply with requirements of the New York State Public Authorities Accountability Act and Authorities Budget Office. For example, it had to designate a newspaper for required legal announcements and news information. Instead of designating just one, the SRAA designated all of the newspapers in its 12-county catchment area, which includes parts of Canada. It further plans to use a website to post meeting information, in compliance with the Open Meetings Law.

State law also required that the SRAA create three committees: audit, governance and finance, on which members of the SRAA sit. The governance committee, for example, reviews corporate governance trends and helps develop policies and procedures, such as codes of ethics and policies regarding travel and whistle blowing.

To date, the airport authority has only retained the services of one outside firm: Hancock Estabrook LLP, which provides legal counsel. "It will support the SRAA later in its transition - for example, to draft an operating agreement," Reale explains.

The city has provided legal representation to the SRAA in most matters, but outside counsel is used when a conflict of interest could arise. When negotiating the agreement for private security services at the airport, for example, the city drafted the agreement and Hancock Estabrook reviewed it.

Evolving Details

Airport personnel, including Reale, are currently employed by the city rather than the airport. She considers the prospect of that changing a matter for future discussion.

As commissioner of aviation, Reale continues to head airport operations and has recently begun presenting monthly progress reports to the SRAA about airport business. Topics include TSA inspections, airfield rescue and firefighting training and airline interface. She also serves as secretary of the airport authority.

SRAA members without aviation backgrounds have been receiving assistance from other airport authorities as they climb the learning curve. "We have been regularly reaching out to our counterparts at other airport authorities to discuss this transition", reports Reale. The Albany County Airport Authority, for instance, gave SRAA members a step-by-step history of the process it went through when transitioning from a county-run airport to an airport authority in the mid-1990s.

According to authority members in Buffalo and Albany, one of the key advantages of becoming a standalone airport authority is the ability to obtain a better credit rating - and therefore better loan rates - than municipalities. "This was a major factor in the decision of the Common Council to create the SRAA," Reale relates. "For now, the city is taking care of any borrowing for the airport. But at some point, the SRAA might take over this."

This is also a time for physical change at SYR: It is currently in the midst of a $60 million security and access improvement project that is scheduled to end in two years. Realigning the concessions program, which was designed before 9/11 and is heavily concentrated in pre-security areas, is another matter requiring attention.

"We are changing the look of the terminal and also the way the airport is used," Reale says. "In two to three years, we will have a much different place."  



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