On Jan. 9, James “Jim” Gill officially will begin his role as the new CEO and president of the Gerald R. Ford International Airport.
Gill comes to Grand Rapids from Pittsburgh, where he most recently served as COO and CFO of the Allegheny County Airport Authority, which oversees Pittsburgh International Airport and Allegheny County Airport and serves more than 8 million passengers per year.
Following the unanimous vote by the GFIA Authority Board to offer him the position, the Grand Rapids Business Journal sat down with Gill to learn more about the community’s newest aviation executive.
Business Journal: So, you are coming to us from Pittsburgh. Is that where you were born and raised?
Jim Gill: Yes, I was raised in Pittsburgh, right in the city.
BJ: Where did you attend college?
JG: I attended Duquesne University in Pittsburgh for undergrad and was a graduate assistant there and got my MBA there, as well.
BJ: I heard you have seven kids. How many boys and how many girls?
JG: Five boys and two girls. The oldest is 21 and youngest is 2 and a half, and my wife is Mary Beth Gill.
BJ: What about hobbies? What do you like to do in your free time?
JG: I don’t have a whole lot of free time, but my kids are involved in extra curricular activities, like baseball and football, and I enjoy that, and I play the guitar.
BJ: Are you pretty good?
JG: I’m okay. I think Eddie Van Halen and Eric Clapton are pretty safe, but I’m okay. I play relatively regularly in my church’s contemporary rock group.
BJ: What’s your favorite song to play?
JG: That’s a tough one. Probably “Over the Hills and Far Away” by Led Zeppelin.
BJ: You’ve probably heard we are Beer City USA. Have you been able to get to any of our local breweries, yet?
JG: I’ve had some of the local brews but not at the local breweries. I have brewed some beer on the side, so I’m looking forward to trying what is local. I want to support the local beer base.
BJ: What about sports teams? Are you a diehard fan of any sports teams?
JG: Certainly the Pittsburgh teams, the Steelers, the Pirates and the Penguins, but the good news is the (Detroit) Tigers and the Lions are in the American League and NFC, so there doesn’t have to be a lot of direct competition. Not unless both get to the Super Bowl or World Series.
BJ: What about your favorite travel destination?
JG: I think on behalf of the family, I have to go with Orlando. We go to Disney regularly.
BJ: How’d you get interested in your career path?
JG: I started off in the accounting/auditing world and a position came up — I’d done contract compliance work — at the airport in Pittsburgh to work in the airport’s properties group, which did contracts, leases and negotiations. I had a financial background and many of the staff had contractual backgrounds, but not finance, and that sort of started it. I continued to progress and was ultimately selected to be the finance director and then moved on to deputy director and was hired as CFO at the Raleigh airport and then came back to Pittsburgh, and I became COO, as well. I consider myself an airport person.
BJ: What are some of the similarities and differences between the airports in Pittsburgh and here at GFIA?
JG: The biggest difference is probably from a facilities standpoint. Pittsburgh was built to be a hub, but it’s no longer a hub, so it’s very focused on the origination and destination passenger. That change has caused us to modify the operation and make the airport more reflective of the community, rather than being a layover spot for hub carriers.
GFIA has always been an origination and destination airport. It’s always been able to be very reflective of the community. Both airports are trying to take care of the regional constituent, looking for customer and air service opportunities that support the community. Both markets have a lot of support from the business community and from the convention and visitor bureaus.
BJ: What excites you about GFIA?
JG: It’s been a growing facility and a growing region, and it continues to expand. I’m looking forward to opportunities to support that expansion and be part of the team to help deliver more and improved customer service amenities to the public and more air service to support the destinations that the community and businesses want to go to. I think it’s an airport with an upward curve and being part of that continued growth is exciting.
BJ: What are some of the trends you are seeing that you want to ensure GFIA is prepared for?
JG: We always have to pay attention to how airlines are doing business and how they are changing the way they do business. Certainly, a big piece of that is technology — being prepared to work with the airlines on their use of technology and their passenger processing.
In larger hub facilities, you are seeing more electronic check in and self-tagging. Eventually, things like that will permeate throughout the industry and airports, and we have to be prepared for that by having the right infrastructure in place.
And from a user perspective, how can we facilitate and improve the passenger experience and make things simpler and more comfortable through technology, as well as our facilities?
BJ: What are some of those amenities travelers want?
JG: Working with the transportation network companies, like Uber and Lyft, for instance. In Pittsburgh, I helped negotiate that agreement. We were one of the first airports that had an agreement to authorize them to work at the airport.
The reason is that the community was desirous. We have a very tech savvy-community — and here, folks are very tech savvy, as well — folks wanted to utilize those services, and we felt we had an obligation to try and make that work. You don’t want to stifle innovation. You have to look at what is reasonable from a cost perspective and what will set you up for future success. A lot of that has to do with technology, amenities and service folks will expect.
Airports need to keep up with the community and the times. They need to be on the leading edge and support what is going on outside the airport in the community and the world.
Editor’s note: The interview was condensed and edited for clarity.