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Delta Air Lines was developing cold feet about what became a $3.1 billion rebuild of Salt Lake City International Airport. So Maureen Riley ramped up some tough negotiating and sharp-eyed budgeting skills.
"We want you to slow down" on the project, said Delta, which was rethinking its operations strategy in the West and what role Salt Lake City may play in the wake of Delta's merger with Northwest. But Riley wasn't having it.
"You know what, maybe you can catch up," she recalls telling Delta, triggering a visit from several top airline officials. After she laid out the solid financial and operations reasons for moving ahead, the Delta group leader signaled the go-ahead. "It's hard to resist your reasonableness," he said, according to Riley.
Natalie Gochnour, a senior member and former chairwoman of the Airport Advisory Board, says that example illustrates the smarts and skills of Riley, who is retiring Friday as airport executive director.
Riley, trained as a certified public accountant, spent years as a financial consultant to airports nationally and ran day-to-day operations at Orlando International Airport before landing in Salt Lake City, where she has served for the past 10 years.
"Maureen is someone who works with numbers and budgets, and has taken that considerable skill and applied it to the really critical negotiations, not only with Delta but other airlines and with the rental car companies, the FAA [Federal Aviation Administration]" and concessionaires to make the rebuild work, Gochnour said.
"You need a really competent airport director because airports are complicated. They are very specialized," added Gochnour, who also is associate dean of the David Eccles School of Business at the University of Utah. "She has taken her considerable skills and positioned our airport very well for the future."
Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, also praised Riley. "Maureen never backs away from a challenge and does what is necessary to keep a project on track and on budget … and is known as being a tough negotiator," Hatch said last week in a Senate floor speech.
Growing pains • Riley proudly says that during her decade in charge, the airport operated without debt until bonds were issued this year to help pay for the multibillion-dollar rebuild project. In fact, the airport essentially made a profit every year.
The airport's operating budget "is $155 million in revenue, and $105 million in expenses so we generate every year a $50 million surplus," she said. It banked surpluses for a decade a total of about $400 million to help pay for the expansion now underway.
The current airport was designed to handle about 11 million passengers a year, but now bulges with some 23.6 million. It continues to grow by about 1 million passengers a year.
The airport reviewed extensively the merits of remodeling versus rebuilding and settled on a rebuild with a new design to allow more efficient operations. It can accommodate a third concourse if needed in the future, and with that could handle needs for 30 years.
The first phase is scheduled to be completed in 2020.
Riley leaves with lingering concerns about one issue with the rebuild: whether the Utah Transit Authority will build and pay for a planned $68 million extension of its TRAX line on elevated tracks to the new terminal. The agency has found only about $10 million for it, but Riley contends UTA promised to build it.
"It's a funding conundrum," she said, adding the airport has no resources to help. "It's a complicated problem, which means it's a complicated solution."
Early career • Riley's path to the Salt Lake City International Airport's top post was a tortuous one.
She attended the Wharton School of Finance at the University of Pennsylvania. She gave birth to a daughter at age 21 and was divorced not long afterward. "It took me 11 years to complete school" as a single mom working and studying, she said.
After becoming a CPA, Riley did public finance work with several airports. Later, she became a financial consultant working with 25 or so airports nationwide including Salt Lake City. She even did some early work looking at how to finance expansion here.
"There's a saying that if you've seen one airport, you've seen one airport," because they are all so different, she said.
By consulting with dozens of airports, she saw and learned many ways of operating and various philosophies which she used as a deputy director in Orlando and as the executive director in Salt Lake City.
Riley, 67, said she decided to retire because she'd accomplished her major goals of moving the rebuild forward and helping to arrange bonding for it.
Besides, she jokingly adds, "I'm old," and most of her friends have retired.
She plans to move back to Orlando, "where most of my social network is." Riley said she and her husband hope to have some fun, including adding to her tally of attending concerts by her idol and fellow New Jersey native Bruce Springsteen.
"I've been to 120 of his concerts," she said. "But who's counting? Everybody needs to have a passion for something. For some, it's golf. For me, it's Bruce Springsteen concerts."
She also plans some volunteer training on finances for airports in developing parts of the world for Airports Council International. She has served for four years on the board of that global organization and was chairwoman of its North American arm.
"She's been a terrific leader to her team at the airport," Gochnour said. "To a person, they are sad to see her go."
Mayor Jackie Biskupski has named former airport executive Russell Pack as interim director while the city continues a nationwide search for Riley's replacement.