Scattered clouds

Ready for takeoff: Flagstaff’s new airport director

By Sierra Ferguson, Arizona Daily Sun

Brian Gall remembers the first time he realized he wanted to work in aviation.

He was in junior high and paying a visit Luke Air Force Base. Listening to the thunder of planes overhead during an airshow, he decided he simply had to work with aircraft in his view.

When he entered college, Gall initially studied aerospace engineering, but he eventually decided the day-to-day work in that field wasn’t the best fit for him. He became a civil engineer instead and started working on the design and development of airports.

On Monday, he took over leadership of Flagstaff Pulliam Airport, but his history with the transportation hub stretches back a bit.

Gall’s experience of Flagstaff is intertwined with his work at the airport.

He said he first developed a love for northern Arizona and the city situated under towering pines while he was consulting with the airport in 2017. He worked on improvements to the runway and the “westplex” where the private shades and hangers are located.

“For part of those projects I was up here for several months at a time, and that’s when I realized that Flagstaff was the community I wanted to live in,” Gall said.

He permanently moved to Flagstaff in 2018, but he didn’t start working at the airport immediately.

After a stint as an engineer for the Coconino and Kaibab national forests, Gall was hired on with the City of Flagstaff to review private development projects. Two years ago, an opening was listed for an airport programs manager and Gall jumped at the opportunity.

“I feel really invested in the airport and its community. I’ve really enjoyed working here. It’s been the most professionally rewarding place that I’ve worked in my career,” Gall said. “It’s hard to see myself working anywhere else.”

After working primarily on capital improvement and airport maintenance projects, he was tapped to take over when Barney Helmick retired.

Helmick had decades of aviation experience and is well-liked and respected as a leader in the city.

“Barney’s been great. We definitely miss him. Even today, I was noticing, it’s a little hard not to copy him on my emails all the time, but his emails are being forwarded to me, so I’d just be sending them back to myself anyway,” Gall said with a laugh.

Heidi Hansen, the economic vitality director for the City of Flagstaff, said the airport is in “good hands with Brian at the helm”

“He has a great work ethic, is incredibly analytical, customer focused and has an extensive knowledge of capital projects and process, as well as FAA and TSA requirements,” Hansen added.

The Flagstaff airport is going through a change in leadership against the backdrop of shifts in aviation and air travel overall.

Starting in 2009, federal regulators started requiring pilots to log at least 1,500 hours of flight time before they could be eligible to fly a commercial plane. Industry critics argued the rule was one of the catalysts of a nationwide pilot shortage — a shortage that was later exacerbated by the arrival of COVID-19.

“What we’ve seen is some changes to route structure. We’re seeing airlines that are flying routes that are not necessarily daily as much as they once did, maybe more several-times-of-week kind of service,” Gall said.

As airlines face staffing shortages and a challenging post-pandemic landscape, airports have also taken a hit, Gall said.

“Obviously, we lost United with a direct route to Denver this last summer — which is something we didn’t want to see,” he said. “We’re working really hard to position the airport well for what the air carriers are looking for in the future.”

To bring in more air service, Gall’s team will be presenting passenger studies — data to demonstrate demand for routes in and out of Flagstaff.

“We’re updating our air service passenger demand analysis, which is a study that shows the ultimate destination of passengers that are departing from Flagstaff, so that we can show that to our airline partners and say, ‘This is a destination you serve, and a lot of customers from Flagstaff are going there. That’s why we think we’d be a good fit for routes,’” Gall said.

This year’s passenger demand analysis will differ from reports of years past.

Gall said the airport has found a way to capture data related to vehicle trips.

“If someone can’t find a flight but they drive there, we can still capture that information to show that there is demand from this region to that region to make the case for additional air service,” he said.

Increasingly, Gall added, airlines are embracing larger planes. One of the ways the airport can work to attract new routes begins at the ground level by offering an airstrip that can accommodate the industry’s trends.

“When I first started working in the aviation industry, it wasn’t uncommon to see 19-seat passenger aircraft flying between some routes in some cities. That’s not really economically viable for the airlines anymore, so we’ve seen that jump to 35-seat aircraft, to 70-seat aircraft. Now it’s kind of moving into that 90- to 120-seat aircraft,” he said.

The tasks associated with upgrading and improving the airport facility sit firmly in Gall’s wheelhouse. He enters the directorship as a series of construction projects are getting underway.

Gall will oversee improvements to the airport’s existing terminal parking lot, the re-paving of the runway, and the construction of a new parking area and pay-to-park system. After those projects are complete, construction will begin on a new equipment shed to house the airport’s colossal snow removal equipment.

Many of the current projects are being paid for using funds from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

“The CARES funding was a very large injection of funds to get airports through that challenging time at the beginning of COVID when travel was very uncertain and a lot of our other revenue streams were not in place,” Gall said. “That’s not our only revenue source.”

The airport receives federal and state grant funding to put toward capital projects. It can now add revenue from passenger parking to that bucket. Gall is also hopeful that as more air service is added, the airport’s revenue streams will strengthen and help support the facility in growth and improvement.

“Generally, the airport has been moving toward being a more self-sustaining enterprise,” he said. “I think we’re well-positioned to take advantage of some of the opportunities we have moving forward, through some of those revenue sources to try to position ourselves well for that changing airport and air travel environment. It’s something that I really want to be a part of.”

By Sierra Ferguson, Arizona Daily Sun