ROCK SPRINGS, WYOMING (September 6, 2020) — In today’s edition of 5 Questions With…, Wyo4News talks with Devon Brubaker, Airport Director for the Southwest Wyoming Regional Airport (RKS).
Brubaker is originally from Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, and brings over 15 years of airport management experience to RKS. He is an Accredited Airport Executive by the American Association of Airport Executives.
Brubaker, who has a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Dubuque and a Master of Aeronautical Science degree from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, joined the airport team in May 2015.
Since 2015, he has been named the Wyoming Airport Operators Association Airport Manager of the Year in 2017, Wyoming Business Report 40 Under 40 in 2017, and Airport Business Magazine 40 Under 40 in 2019.
He and his wife, Jennifer, have five children, Jessica, 24, Samantha, 23, Brandon, 21, Haylee, 9, and Owen, 4.
Wyo4News 5 Questions
1. What was your first initial response at RKS when COVID-19 hit, and everything started shutting down?
It is hard to pinpoint our first initial response as we, much like others, struggled to get a firm grasp on how COVID-19 would truly impact our lives. I and two of our team members were out of town at a global business aviation conference marketing our airport’s general aviation services and facilities in early March. When we left for that conference, we left a world that seemed normal, even with the looming news of a potential pandemic starting to circulate. Before the conference ended, it became evident that things were rapidly changing. The conference was cut short and attendance was quickly dissipating.
On the way home, the airports and flights were nearly vacant. At 7 a.m. on a Monday morning in the main Atrium of Charlotte Douglas International Airport, it was a ghost town, void of the long lines, rapidly moving crowds, and constant sounds of suitcase wheels on the floor. It was truly an eerie feeling. Knowing the normal level of activity on a Monday morning, after having worked at Charlotte airport, the 8th busiest in the world, for two years, it really hit me how quickly our world had changed.
While on the road, I was in constant communication with our team back at home. They were taking early measures to ensure that the airport was prepared to handle the situation. We were just starting our fourth year of growth preparing for the addition of a 3rd daily flight during the summer months and planning on a busy construction season.
Once the reality of the situation started to become clear around the 20th of March, our team jumped into action with our airline, car rental, and TSA partners to ensure we were staying ahead of the developing situation. We segregated our staff to ensure minimal schedule overlaps, introduced enhanced cleaning practices that continue to evolve daily, worked with WYDOT, and SkyWest Airlines to drawback commercial flights to better align with demand, and introduced cost-cutting measures by deferring some facility maintenance tasks and eliminating nearly all overtime.
2. What can you say about your employees and what they were able to do in response to COVID-19?
While the airport itself has only nine total employees, we have other employees at the airport that keep the machine moving. Our partners at TSA, SkyWest Airlines, and Avis Budget Group all have great employees that are part of our airport family.
Together, everyone had to make changes both personally and professionally. Some employees were furloughed, some had their hours cut, and others had to work crazy schedules to allow for separation of schedules. The airport did not and could not close, even with the severely decreased demand for air travel both commercially and privately.
Not only were we required to stay open and maintain all levels of safety and security by the FAA and TSA, but we had to remain open to provide critical services to our community including just-in-time inventory, parts, and supplies from FedEx and UPS as well as medical evacuation and flying doctor flights.
The Department of Homeland Security classified the Aviation Transportation Sector including airports as Critical Infrastructure, making each and every employee here an essential employee. These employees have continued to come to work every day of this pandemic to facilitate the critical air transportation services needed to keep our community connected.
3. How has RKS been operating financially after so many businesses have gone under during this trying time?
With a decrease in enplanements of 75.6 percent, commercial flights by over 50 percent, and general aviation traffic by nearly 20 percent, every source of revenue for the airport has been negatively impacted.
Some studies have shown that the economic impacts of COVID-19 on the aviation industry are more than 12 times worse than those felt after the terrible events of September 11, 2001. Fortunately, our industry’s efforts to lobby for financial support from Congress were successful with the allocation of $10 billion in CARES Act funds for airports. RKS was allocated a little under $1.1 million to be used for any purpose that airport revenues are legally allowed to be used for.
Coupled with our self-induced budget cuts, we have been able to ensure the continued safety and security of the airport. These funds will eventually run out and we are working with our congressional delegation to ensure airports can remain open, safe, and secure across the country.
We are also working with our delegation to ensure that airports can be a key component of economic recovery in small communities across the country as we emerge from this pandemic.
4. What plans are you making to try and improve RKS and make it a better place for people to fly in and out of?
Our Board of Directors and staff have made a conscientious decision to keep our foot on the gas pedal on our plans to develop the airport into a stronger economic engine for the communities we serve.
As we entered 2020, we were anticipating a very busy construction season with projects totaling nearly $35 million in various stages of progress from design to nearing completion. These critical investments in the future of our airport are largely (>90%) funded through federal and state grants allowing for a significant ROI on the local investment. The largest project on tap is the Commercial Terminal Modernization Project which is on schedule to commence construction in 2021. This project will improve nearly every facet of a passenger’s travel experience here at RKS with additional space, improved security screening equipment, and all of the modern comforts you would expect in a modern airport.
An airport often informs a traveler’s first and last impression of a city or region. It must mirror its community. It must provide for a positive and memorable experience at a facility that is, in the best of times, busy, crowded, and stressful. This project will deliver upon these goals and allow us to be well-positioned upon the return of air travel demand over the next few years.
5. What are your hopes for RKS over the next five years?
Our hopes and plans for the next five years remain unchanged even throughout this COVID-19 pandemic. Our Strategic Plan, developed in 2019, developed the blueprint and path forward for us with a heavy focus on driving economic activity in our community through private job creation, land development, and diversified sources of revenues to achieve operational self-sustainability. It will rely heavily on partnerships and relationships throughout our community with the Sweetwater Economic Development Coalition, the County Commission, Rock Springs and Green River City Councils, Western Wyoming Community College, and the Rock Springs and Green River Chambers.
As we work together to achieve economic expansion, we must realize that there is a cause-and-effect relationship between the airport and economic development. Economic expansion can increase airport demand while an increase in airport activity also raises productivity and/or demand in other sectors of the economy. It is our intention to provide a safe, secure modern airport that meets the needs of the residents, businesses, and industries in southwest Wyoming. I am more confident than ever, that we will see success in this pursuit.