A bit more than 36 years ago, Rick McQueen walked into Akron-Canton Airport on his first day on the job as an accounting employee.

McQueen now is preparing to walk out on the last day of 2018, which is also his final day as an employee, the last 10 years as the airport’s president and chief executive officer.

“Nothing here looks the same since I walked through those front doors. … And I think all for the better,” said McQueen, who is retiring at the age of 59.

He started in 1982, at a time when airlines were figuring out how to operate in the aftermath of the federal government's deregulation of the industry. The initial impact hurt airport traffic across the country, he said.

In his first year at work, Akron-Canton Airport had about 150,000 total passengers, McQueen said.

“The airlines didn’t know how to compete,” he said. “We sort of roller coastered for a while. We’d grow, we’d lose a little bit, we’d grow a little bit higher.”

That pattern repeated “for many, many years” until AirTran arrived in the late 1990s, he said.

Budget carrier AirTran ushered in low-cost fares, making air travel much more affordable to many more people in Northeast Ohio, McQueen said.

“We had one of the only low-cost carriers in the region,” he said. “They grew with our community.”

That growth continued until Southwest Airlines bought the carrier. And then Southwest began reducing flights, finally pulling out in 2017, he said.

Akron-Canton Airport has continued to make adjustments.

“I think now we’re in a good spot. We found the bottom,” McQueen said. “We’re going to start to turn the corner. We're going to start to grow again. A lot of the improvements and changes we’re seeing here we’ve made to be prepared for that next opportunity.”

After each down period, the airport has seen a significant gain in passenger traffic, he said.

“Hopefully, we’ll continue to grow bigger than we were in 2012, which was our record year,” McQueen said. Six years ago, the airport handled more than 1.8 million passengers; in 2017, that figure fell below 1.3 million.

 

Making changes

The airport has adjusted over the years to accommodate changes in consumer and airline preferences and changes in technology, including the advent of smartphones and wireless internet.

Some of those changes were imposed. The airport had to make significant changes to accommodate greatly expanded security measures in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, McQueen noted.

“We listen to what our customers want and figure out how to get it done,” McQueen said.

The airport has been making substantial changes to modernize and improve, including the 10-year, $110 million “CAK 2018” capital improvement initiative started in 2008 that included runway lengthening, terminal expansion, parking improvements and more. A final piece of the 10-year plan is a $34 million gate expansion that started in September.

“One of our jobs has to be to position us for the future,” McQueen said.

The airport can’t have a 1962-era gate area — it needs contemporary amenities for travelers and airlines, he said.

“We have to show them we’re a progressive community,” he said.

Akron-Canton Airport continues to adapt to new aircraft technologies that allow it to handle larger jets that can take local travelers to ever-distant places, he said.

McQueen praised his predecessor and mentor, the late Fred Krum, for preparing him as the airport’s chief executive and positioning the airport for success. Krum retired as director after 33 years at the airport in October 2008 — a year earlier, he had surgery to remove a brain tumor — and died in March 2009. McQueen, the assistant director, was promoted to the airport’s top position.

“I think the biggest thing for me was I got to work with Fred Krum for 26 years,” McQueen said.

Krum instituted a culture at the airport that McQueen said he tried to perpetuate.

“We’re still a family-type operation,” McQueen said.

 

What's next

McQueen is being succeeded by Renato “Ren” Camacho, who officially took over as airport CEO in October. Camacho previously was chief of planning and engineering at Cleveland’s Department of Port Control.

McQueen said he intends to keep busy in retirement and that he is grateful to be retiring on his own timeline.

“I will miss it,” he said. “It’s the right time for the airport and it’s the right time for me.”

McQueen will be the 2019 chairman of the Canton Regional Chamber of Commerce and said he will continue to sit on other business and community organization boards.

“I want to stay busy in the community,” he said.

He also said he has a lengthy list of items to do around the house.

And he anticipates traveling to see his children and grandchild.

McQueen said he expects he and his wife, Karen, who is an attorney in Canton, will revisit Europe, take a trip to the Grand Canyon and perhaps go to Australia.

“I don’t think I’m going to be bored,” McQueen said.

 

Jim Mackinnon can be reached at 330-996-3544 or jmackinnon@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow him @JimMackinnonABJ on Twitter or www.facebook.com/JimMackinnonABJ.