The Louisville International Airport completed a more than $9.5 million terminal renovation in early 2017. | Courtesy of Alliance and the Louisville Regional Airport Authority

If Louisville International Airport had an international port of entry, the airport would already offer nonstop air service outside of the United States, Dan Mann, the new executive director of the Louisville Regional Airport Authority, stated confidently.

It might be a twice-a-week nonstop flight to a vacation destination in Mexico or Central America, but it’d be a start, Mann said. “It is creating a market that we don’t have right now.”

Mann recently returned from a trip to Montreal where he spoke with representatives from Air Canada about service to Toronto. But to offer an international flight, the airport would need a new terminal to house a Federal Inspection Service, which includes secure checkpoints for U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents to inspect passports and baggage coming into the Louisville International Airport.

The airport authority commissioned a study into the possibility, part of a larger estimated $125 million in Phase 2 terminal improvements, and Mann told Insider Louisville in an interview that an international terminal could be three years away — which, he admitted, is longer than he’d like.

The cost of flights out of Louisville remains above $400. | Courtesy of Louisville International Airport

Just under six months into his new role, Mann, who started March 1, already has big plans on the horizon to make the airport more cutting edge and innovative.

“I want us to be the best airport in the country. … it’s the best infrastructure, it’s best practices, it’s best corporate culture, it’s best people, it’s best facilities,” Mann said. “What we’re all talking about internally is ‘What practices are we doing here that are working? What isn’t working? And let’s be prepared to move much quicker than we have in the past.’ ”

Among the changes is the introduction of free wireless internet service, private rooms for nursing mothers and an update to the airport’s 14-year master plan. The airport is “past due” to modernize its master plan, Mann said, noting that the airport should revise the plan every eight to 10 years at a minimum.

At the July meeting of the airport authority board, the board awarded a contract to the engineering consulting firm Kimley-Horn to do just that. The updated plan will project the airport’s traffic growth over 20 years, identify needed upgrades and allow the airport authority to apply for discretionary funding from the Federal Aviation Administration, something it can’t do without a contemporary master plan.

Mann hopes to have a new master plan drafted in a short 18 months. “We don’t have three to five years because we are a little bit behind the power curve,” he said.

About a Mann

Dan Mann | Courtesy of LRAA

Mann, 53, grew up in Bryan, Ohio, a tiny town in the Northwest corner of the state. His parents were blue-collar factory workers, and Mann was the first member of his family to attend college.

He graduated with a business degree from Bowling Green State University, which he paid for by joining the Air National Guard.

“Business was my thing. Back when I was growing up, there was a movie, Gordon Gekko — greed is good — that guy, he was a Wall Street guy. I always wanted to go to Wall Street, so that was kind of my thing,” Mann said, referencing “Wall Street,” a 1987 film starring Michael Douglas.

However, after spending time in the Air National Guard during college, he decided he wanted to fly, so Mann applied for a pilot position within the U.S. Air Force. He ultimately got a job as a navigator on a Boeing B-52 Stratofortress, a long-range bomber, and served for five years, leaving the service following Desert Storm.

After that, Mann contacted a college friend, Eric Frankl, also a former Air National Guard member, to ask about working at airports. Frankl at the time was working for Mann’s predecessor Charles “Skip” Miller at the airport in Ft. Wayne, Ind.; he’s now the executive director of the Blue Grass Airport in Lexington, Ky.

“Our business is very, very small,” Mann said.

Roughly a year later, Mann got his first airport job in Dubuque, Iowa, as an operations specialist.

Mann told Insider that starting out at a $19,000-a-year entry-level job was quite a shift from being a captain in the Air Force and flying around the world, but it allowed him to learn while working.

He later went on to work at airports in upstate New York, Casper, Wyo., Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and, most recently, Columbia, S.C. At the Columbia Metropolitan Airport, Mann oversaw a $58 million capital improvement program, implemented a Disadvantaged Business Enterprise outreach initiative and led five consecutive years of passenger growth.

Mann came to Louisville in March of this year with his wife, Melissa, and more than 25 years experience under his belt. The Manns have two children: Alyssa, a 29-year-old dentist and captain in the Air Force, and Bryant, a 30-year-old electrician and organic farmer in Cedar Rapids.

Mann, who has family in Kentucky, called the executive director position a “dream job” and said he was never sure if he’d land here. “Positions have to open at the right time, you have to have the right experience,” he said. “It is tough to have an opportunity like this come up.”

He added that he likes Louisville International Airport because it is large enough where air service is stable but small enough that the job focuses on running the airport, rather than politics.

“You get to a large hub airport and many times you are not even at the airport,” Mann said.

Improving the customer experience

The airport authority is updating its master plan to prepare for needed airfield upgrades. | Courtesy of Louisville International Airport

Mann is moving swiftly to make changes at the Louisville International Airport, but some improvements will take time.

The previously mentioned study looking into the prospect of adding an international terminal, as well as the demand for international flights, is expected to wrap up in February 2019. Then, designing the new terminal will take about six months, followed by a bidding process to see who will construct it.

Mann did not want to speculate on how many millions of dollars the project will cost but said it will probably take about three years all in all.

The airport would need to find funding for construction as well as money to pay federal customs agents to work flights. Initially, Mann said, the airport authority would likely have to subsidize the agents’ pay with funding from its operating budget, but the objective is for the flight revenues to cover that expense.

Airports that Louisville International Airport compares itself to, such as Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and Buffalo, N.Y., have had Federal Inspection Service stations for many years, said Luke Schmidt, head of Louisville Regional Airlift Development (LRAD). “That is really, really key to the future.”

LRAD is a nonprofit coalition started in June 2017 by a group of business leaders in Louisville with the goal of attracting nonstop domestic flights to Los Angeles and Boston after years of complaints that the lack of flights inhibits access to Louisville and makes it harder for the city to attract businesses and thereby grow economically.

Louisville’s benchmark airports started international service with vacation destinations like Cancun, Mexico, Schmidt said, adding that “there is absolutely enough demand” for Louisville International Airport to least have a Saturday nonstop flight to Cancun.

While an international terminal is still years away, Mann said the goal is to complete the new overall master plan for the airport in 18 months.

Through a partnership with Louisville Water, the airport will soon have water bottle filling stations like this one. | Courtesy of Louisville Water

“I suspect we will have some airfield needs to accommodate the growth; terminal’s probably in good shape, except we don’t have an international port of entry, and I think we need one. There is demand right now for international commercial service,” he said.

Potential improvements could include lengthening one of the runways, more parking, better wayfinding signage, updates to aging infrastructure and reconfiguring the airfield within its existing footprint, Mann said.

He added that the airport is constrained by the interstate, the Ford Louisville Assembly Plant and railroad tracks on three sides, but he doesn’t believe service will outgrow the physical property. Still, efficiency measures are needed and could save airlines and partner UPS Worldport time and money.

“If you can save 10 minutes from the time they move to take off, you’re saving a lot of money. Multiply that by 200 planes per night, it is significant,” Mann said of UPS, which shipped more than 5.7 billion pounds of cargo, freight and mail out of the airport in 2017.

In addition to planning and budgeting for traffic growth through a new master plan, Mann told Insider about amenity upgrades he wants to make, including updating the elevators, jet bridge and moving walkway.

“Anything on customer experience that makes us better is what I’m after,” he said.

When leading the Columbia Metropolitan Airport, he oversaw the installation of a five-acre solar farm at the airport. The farm has generated $25,000 worth of energy each month that the airport sells back to the utility company, and it has a 3.7 percent return on investment, Mann said, noting that he’d like to implement solar in Louisville.

Bowman Field, which the airport authority also manages, has green space that could accommodate solar arrays, Mann said. The authority also plans to install a covered deck over the Louisville International Airport’s rental car lot and is investigating the possibility of integrating solar into the deck. That doesn’t mean it’s going to happen, though, Mann added.

Another initiative that is traveling from Columbia to Louisville is a loyalty program. Frequent flyers would be able to receive discounted parking rates and skip the lines to park at the airport by simply flashing a card.

There is no timeline for when the loyalty program could debut, but flyers will be able to access free Wi-Fi by November. The airport is beholden to its current internet contract until October.

“Our customers demand that,” Mann said.

The lack of free Wi-Fi is one of the top complaints from customers, he said, along with flight prices, the desire for more nonstop routes and weather impacting flights. The top complements the airport receives from flyers are related to how easy the airport is to navigate, its convenient location, the variety of food and drink offerings and its décor.

“I’ve been very impressed with the leadership and the vision (Mann) has brought to the position. He clearly has an eye toward customer service,” Schmidt said.

Attracting new nonstop flights

The map shows the cities people can fly nonstop to from Louisville. | Courtesy of Louisville International Airport

Louisville has made progress in the last couple of years when it comes to the number of nonstop flights it now offers. Discount airline Frontier Airlines started service out of Louisville this spring after leaving the market in 2012; it now offers two nonstop routes, one to Denver and one to Austin. Allegiant has added 11 nonstop flights out of Louisville since May 2017, and Southwest plans to add a nonstop route to Dallas in January.

Still, in many cases, the flights are not offered daily, and while Louisville has made strides in the past two years, the airport’s offerings lag behind benchmark airports that are announcing nonstop flights to London, Iceland and other major destinations.

Louisville has 28 nonstop flight destinations (that includes multiple airports in the same city) and 72 daily nonstop departures. The airport accommodated almost 3.47 million passengers last year.

By comparison, Indianapolis has 44 nonstop destinations and 143 daily departures, and more than 8.77 million passengers came through its doors in 2017. In Nashville, those numbers are even higher.

Mann noted that to create and show a demand for routes to prominent locations, the city of Louisville’s economy and the airport need to grow in tandem.

“A lot of times you hear ‘Oh well, if our airport was the size of Nashville’s airport, we’d be Nashville,’ but it really doesn’t work that way,” Mann said. “The airport could be the size of Nashville’s, but Louisville has to be the size of Nashville, too.”

Because Louisville International Airport offers fewer direct flights, the airport loses revenue from more than 500,000 local passengers each year to the airports in Indianapolis, Cincinnati and Nashville. Some people even drive up to Chicago to fly direct.

Employees at the Louisville International Airport are working diligently to make a case for why airlines should offer more nonstop flights and improve service locally to lower the amount of revenue lost to other airports, Mann said. To help do that, Mann has hired Anthony Gilmer as Louisville International Airport’s director of marketing and air service development and retained an outside consultant.

Mann has had meetings with airlines about new routes and said information and support provided by LRAD have bolstered his case.

“Everything we are doing is really to try to support what they are doing” at the airport, Schmidt said. “What we don’t want to do is duplicate efforts.”

Since last year, LRAD leaders have argued that an incentive for airlines is needed to ensure that Louisville doesn’t fall too far behind others. LRAD has raised “several million dollars” toward its $4-million goal to create a minimum revenue guarantee fund, which could be used to incentivize an airline to add a nonstop Los Angeles route, Schmidt said.

“It is intended to show the community is willing to share the initial risk,” he said at an event last December.

LRAD and Mann have jointly met with airlines about a possible Los Angeles route but no news yet.

“We are making progress. When I say progress, I wouldn’t say service is imminent,” Mann said. “In this business, they look at things for a long time before they make decisions to serve the market.”

That said, airlines are asking for more information, he said, which a positive sign.

“Having LRAD exist is very positive. It is a group of business travelers who spend money flying, and airlines always want to hear from those people,” Mann said.

Nonstop flights to San Francisco and Seattle also are on the top of LRAD’s list of desired destinations.

In addition to trying to attract new routes with data showing demand and potential incentives, Mann said he wants to join forces with leaders at other airports to lobby for new nonstop routes and then advertise those new flights to ensure they stick around.

At a tourism-focused event in June, Mann told the crowd that Louisville secured a nonstop flight to Austin through Frontier Airlines because officials with the Austin airport were asking for the route. “What other cities are out there that want service to Louisville?” he said.