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New Charleston airport CEO Elliott Summey tackles pandemic and questions of qualifications

Elliott Summey under dome of Charleston International Airport

Elliott Summey, the new CEO of Charleston County Aviation Authority, talks about his vision for the Aviation Authority. Brad Nettles/Staff

NORTH CHARLESTON — Elliott Summey now has a job far different than the one he captured after his stormy anointment in January.

As the new CEO of the state's busiest airport, he finds himself grappling with a nearly two-thirds plunge in passenger traffic, a spending plan slashed by $25 million, a freeze on hiring and plans for a third wing on the terminal clipped until further notice.

He can thank the coronavirus.

It has been both a blessing and a curse in his ascension as the leader of one of the biggest economic engines in the Charleston region.

On the one hand, the pandemic preoccupied everyone's attention and swept away the public outcry over his selection as the epitome of cronyism.

As the chairman of Charleston County Council (a position he still holds until January) and the son of influential North Charleston Mayor Keith Summey — who has a seat on the airport board but abstained from voting for his son through a proxy — the 43-year-old former real estate worker got the job, critics decried, without much experience in the aviation field and because of his connections as a politician. 

By the time Summey unpacked pictures of his wife and children in his new office in July, his controversial selection was a distant memory, replaced by the upheaval wrought by the coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent racial unrest sparked by the death of George Floyd at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer.

"There is too much else going on," said Elder James Johnson, an outspoken critic of Summey and state president of the newly formed Racial Justice Network.

On the other hand, the virus placed a huge burden on the new airport leader. It vanquished the high-flying days of fat coffers and new milestones in passenger levels that set records year after year.

Summey had to figure out how to deal with declining revenues, instill confidence in the flying public, and keep airlines with a tiny fraction of pre-pandemic passengers continuing to fly in and out of Charleston International, not one of the nation's major airports, but also not one of its smallest.

"You could not have a more difficult time to be the new director of an airport than it is right now," Mount Pleasant Mayor Will Haynie, an airport board member, recently said. "It will definitely be trial by fire."

Elliott Summey in his office at Charleston International Airport

Elliott Summey started in July as the new CEO of Charleston County Aviation Authority. Here, he talks about his vision for the future of the agency and the three airports he oversees, including the state's busiest terminal at Charleston International Airport. Brad Nettles/Staff

Haynie voted against Summey's appointment over lack of openness, saying his decision was not about the person but the selection process.

Plan to recover

With the sting of his turbulent hiring still on his mind, Summey knew before July he had to hit the ground running. Not only did he have to prove himself worthy of the $290,000-a-year job after the dustup in January, but he also inherited an airport now undergoing its steepest decline in recent memory.

He laid out a five-point "Business Recovery and Continuity Plan," targeting health safety measures to tackle the coronavirus and vowing to look for new revenue sources. 

One of his first moves shortly after taking office in July was requiring anyone inside the terminal to wear a mask.

That followed a plan of action coordinated through the Medical University of South Carolina on how to deal with the virus.

"MUSC went department by department and recommended social distancing guidelines for each work area, as well as the placement of sanitizing stations, among other safety measures, throughout the terminal, the annex and any building owned by the Aviation Authority," airport spokesman Spencer Pryor said.

Summey then looked to the terminal to make sure all of its touchpoints are fogged routinely with a microbial solution.

"It's good for about 30 days, but we do it about every 20 to 25 days, just to be safe," he said.

Elliott Summey closeup with face mask

Elliott Summey, the new CEO of Charleston County Aviation Authority, explains how the TSA passenger check-in area is cleaned during the coronavirus pandemic. Brad Nettles/Staff

The spray does not kill the virus, but it disables it — a process he likened to a nail puncturing a tire.

Summey learned of the solution through Boeing Co., which builds its 787 Dreamliner passenger airplanes next to the airport.

"They are spraying all of their jets with it," he said. "If it's good enough for Boeing, it's good enough for us."

The terminal also undergoes daily cleanings, but Summey said the wipe-downs do not swab away the microbial solution since it's embedded in surfaces.

In addition to safety measures, the Aviation Authority also worked with vendors and fixed-base operators at Charleston International to defer lease payments during the downturn, said Doug Boston, the airport's chief financial officer.

As for the 10 airlines serving the airport, their rates and fees were frozen at last year's level.

"Had we done nothing, their rents would have skyrocketed," Boston said.

Elliott Summey in TSA area

Elliott Summey, the new CEO of Charleston County Aviation Authority, talks about sanitizing during the coronavirus pandemic in the Transportation Security Administration checkpoint at Charleston International Airport. Brad Nettles/Staff

That's because the airlines' fees are tied to concession sales. The higher concession sales are, the lower the airlines' fees are. With very little being sold and the airport in a financial position to absorb some of the loss, the airlines received a break until times are better.

Requiring masks and cleaning the terminal, according to Summey, are meant to let the traveling public and airlines know the airport is doing everything it can to provide "as safe of an environment as possible under the circumstances."

Because consumer confidence in safe flying remains low, the International Air Transport Association predicts passenger levels will not return to pre-pandemic levels until 2023 at the earliest — a year later than previously predicted. That's if a vaccine is available in the interim.

Slow virus containment in the U.S. and other countries, along with depressed corporate travel and skittish consumers, are blamed for the slower recovery. The latest upswing in virus cases in Europe and elsewhere will likely also affect travel demand.

Looking for new revenue

Summey realizes it will take a while to restore people's confidence in traveling, even after a vaccine is available, so he is focusing efforts to diversify the airport's revenue stream in light of the expected 60 percent plunge in passenger traffic for all of this year.

He pointed to Boeing's recent announcement of consolidating all 787 manufacturing operations in North Charleston as "a huge win" for the Lowcountry and the Aviation Authority, but he said the airport can do a lot more with its uncultivated property.

"We have a lot of space here that can be better used, and we have a lot of land that can be better used," Summey said. "Land, cars and facilities are all the same. If they sit idle, it's not good for them."

He is exploring renting out unused space in the 80,000-square-foot airport annex building off Porsche Boulevard. That's where the Police Department occupies about 30,000 square feet and the $10 million kitchen, built to serve British Airways when it returns, takes up about 5,000 square feet.

The airport is now seeking bids on about 20,000 square feet that can be used for office and warehouse space. 

"We still have about 25,000 square feet of warehouse or office space available that we could rent out in that building," Summey said. "That could generate revenue for the airport that we need during the recovery."

He also wants to build a new air cargo facility on the opposite side of the airfield near Aviation Avenue, saying the existing one near the terminal works but needs an upgrade.

"It's very outdated and too small," Summey said.

He also wants to use some of the $22.3 million in economic stimulus money doled out to the Aviation Authority in April to build new hangars at the agency's two smaller airports in Mount Pleasant and on Johns Island.

While he said the airport in Mount Pleasant is more limited for future development because of wetlands and new subdivisions surrounding the airfield, he called the airport on Johns Island "a diamond in the rough."

"There's a ton of land out there," he said.

He pointed to the Aviation Authority as a big part of Charleston's economy, especially with Boeing sitting in its backyard, and said the focus now has to include job creation for the region.

"We can't just be about passenger count," Summey said. "Economic development is extremely important to quality of life."

Elliott Summey with Hernan Pena and Spencer Pryor

Elliott Summey (center), the new CEO of Charleston County Aviation Authority, talks with Deputy Executive Director and Chief Operating Officer Hernan Pena (left) and Deputy Director and Chief Communications Officer Spencer Pryor in early September in the baggage-conveying area beneath Charleston International Airport. Brad Nettles/Staff

Outcry fades

Summey's first few months on the job have come without a fuss, in stark contrast to the contention that muddled his selection nine months ago when it was announced he would start with a salary just shy of the $300,000 earned by his predecessor, Paul Campbell.

Campbell, a retired Alcoa executive, engineer and retiring state senator, stepped aside in July, now acting in a consulting role until his official departure in December.

During Campbell's seven-year tenure, passenger traffic nearly doubled to 4.87 million arrivals and departures last year. More airlines, including British Airways and its first nonstop transatlantic flight to London from South Carolina, called on Charleston. In addition, the terminal was totally revamped, with more gates and modern features, at a cost of $200 million under Campbell's reign.

Paul Campbell

Paul Campbell stepped aside in July after seven years as CEO of Charleston County Aviation Authority. He will remain as an adviser through December. File/Brad Nettles/Staff

Summey knew he would have a tough act to follow, and his appointment was anything but smooth. It stirred up a whirlwind of controversy, and he won the seat by the slimmest of margins from the 11-member airport board.

Board member Henry Fishburne resigned, steaming over the selection process that he said should have been done through an open search.

Like Haynie, Charleston Mayor John Tecklenburg, also a board member, opposed the appointment, echoing that his dissension was not about the person but about the way it was done.

In the aftermath, Johnson, then with the National Action Network, denounced Summey's appointment during a press conference.

He called it "White privilege" as part of the "good ol' boy system."

"This is not Summeyville," Johnson said. "This is North Charleston."

Today, those objections are somewhat muted.

Fishburne, who is now enjoying retirement on his boat and spending time with his grandchildren, hasn't changed his position as he reflected on the hiring of Summey.

"My whole thing was the way the succession was done," said Fishburne.

As for the job Summey is doing in his few months at the airport helm, Fishburne said it's too early to tell, but he didn't have anything harsh to say about Summey.

"I don't know if there has been enough time to judge one way or another," Fishburne said.

Johnson, of the Racial Justice Network, didn't quibble over his dissatisfaction with Summey's selection.

"I don't know what kind of job he is doing, but he is not qualified," Johnson said recently. "We have more people qualified to do that job than him."

Summey hasn't been tested by any major conflict yet at the airport, but Mount Pleasant's mayor gives him a passing a grade for his first few months.

"He brought all of us in one by one to hear his vision for the airport," Haynie said. "Everything was well thought out in various sectors for where the airport needs to go."

Tecklenburg, too, said Summey's focus on economic development and using the airport's untapped resources are a good start.

Aviation Authority Chairwoman Helen Hill pointed to Summey's economic development background as a member of Charleston County Council and other regional boards as valuable.

"Elliott brings enthusiasm that is infectious and an uncanny attention to detail in looking for new streams of revenue, as well as cost savings during the return to better times," said Hill, who also heads the tourism agency Explore Charleston.

'Less of a lightning rod'

Looking back at his selection, Summey, a County Council member for the past 12 years, said he expected some pushback, but not the public outcry that followed over the next few days. 

"It was hurtful to some degree that people looked at me only as a politician," he said of the backlash against his appointment.

He surmised that Charleston's rapidly growing population brought new people into the community who knew little about his background.

Besides working in real estate and being on County Council, he also served on several boards with direct input into the region's growth. They include the Charleston Regional Development Alliance, Charleston Metro Chamber of Commerce and Explore Charleston.

He believes the fallout from his appointment punctuated the importance of building relationships.

"Everything comes with criticism, but anything worth doing is going to be hard," Summey said.

He also pointed to a misconception about the airport's sources of revenue. "We receive no taxes," he said. 

All of the airport's money comes from fees paid by airlines, passengers, vendors, parking, rental cars and advertising. Its only public money comes through grants from the Federal Aviation Administration that must be used for specific purposes.

Looking ahead, Summey knows he has work to do, not only to gain the public's trust that he can do the job, but also to meet the trials of a pandemic.

"Hopefully, I will be less of a lightning rod," he said. "I've enjoyed my political career and helping people over the past 12 years, but now I will work as hard as I can to bring this airport to its full potential."

Reach Warren L. Wise at 843-937-5524. Follow him on Twitter @warrenlancewise.

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