The Virginia Tech Montgomery Executive Airport is one of our area’s economic drivers, a critical element of our infrastructure that supports tourism, economic development, and recreation. Its executive director, Rhode Island native Michael St. Jean, is a happy man.
The airport is undergoing construction to lengthen the runway and make it available to larger airplanes. He’s delighted by the multi-organizational cooperation he’s seeing.
“I’ve been in Virginia for 35 years now, but when I go home to Rhode Island, people think I have a Virginia accent. Here, people say, ‘You’re not from around here.’ My daughter, who was born here, still makes fun of my accent,” he joked.
Michael began his career as an air traffic controller in the Army. His last service station was Fort Eustis in Newport News, Virginia. When he finished his eight years, he transitioned to civilian life. “I absolutely loved military life. My family history is one based upon serving this country in uniform. We believe it is an obligation and a duty.
“There were options for me to stay in the Army. I decided to leave the military an be in a business environment.” He worked in a multi-franchise car dealership in Newport News. He did this for 14 years. When he got a degree in business administration from Christopher Newport University and sought a change. He got a job managing a small airport in New Kent County. He worked there for three years before interviewing for the job at the Tech airport. “I’ve been here ever since.”
I asked about daily life in his job as executive director. He said, “Like a water authority or a solid waste authority, my board is made up of representatives of all the stake-holders: Virginia Tech, Blacksburg, Christiansburg, Montgomery County, and one ‘at large’ member. I respond to their direction. The Authority is an independent government has entity created by the Virginia Legislature which is then made up of the four entities.
My job is different every day. I have regular plans that have to be submitted on schedules. I oversee all financial aspects of the airport. I communicate with tenants who park their airplanes here. I spend time outside the fence talking with the community about their concerns about our operations. I talk about the value of this airport to the community.”
The airport has no commercial service. At the federal level, it is a general aviation regional airport, recently rising from a community to a regional airport.
“We now service more executive and corporate types of jets. I have a staff skilled in operations such as maintaining runway lighting, approach lighting, penetrations to the airspace, and people who wish to fly drones.
“We are in the midst of a runway expansion. Virginia Tech, a few years ago when it was in control, did a strategic master plan. They determined the airport needed to extend the runway from 4500 feet to 5500 feet. We acquired more land and improved the facilities and apron. It took six years to do the environmental assessment, much like a major road project. There were 26 federal and state agencies involved. Water issues. Species impact. Historical site impacts. Architectural. Sociological. We hired consultants to do that work.”
Michael has an annual budget of $1.1-1.2 million and a staff of 11. I asked about his best and worst days.
“When an aircraft is in trouble or crashes, we need to take care of those aboard. Operationally we need to function at design standards. We were a staging location for the April 16 disaster team and the Morva shooting response. On one football game day, we had 80 aircraft arriving and leaving and the weather was so bad they closed the Roanoke airport. I’m proud of how we responded. We were amazed by the challenges that day presented. We learned what we were capable of. When we have a lot of airplanes out there, it’s hard, but it’s fun.
He gushed about the multi-agency cooperation he was seeing in this expansion. “We have many moving pieces working together. We’re half-way through a three-year project. It’s working better than we ever expected. There are minor and major hiccups. But the planning has been so good that it’s moving along very smoothly. There is openness in communication. People here are open-minded. I think it’s working so well here because everybody seems to be going in the same direction. This is a fun job.”