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How Jesse Romo went from selling neckties to managing airports

Hugo Phan

Wichita’s director of airports talks about his shift from men's fashion to aviation and air service in Wichita.

Jesse Romo, Wichita’s director of airports, was well on his way to a successful career at Macy’s, where he worked in men’s fashion at the legendary department store.

But then came the terrorist attacks of 9-11, which changed his career path.

Romo, a native of Southern California, was hired last fall to run Wichita’s Eisenhower National and Jabara airports. Before that, he spent six years as director of Manhattan’s airport.

Romo talked with Tom Shine and The Range about his shift to aviation, air service in Wichita, what he learned during his time in Manhattan and the biggest challenges for commercial aviation.

Interview Highlights

Tom Shine: I read a story about how you made a switch from a career in retail to aviation after 9-11.

Jesse Romo: I was moving up the ranks at Macy's, and I was a group sales manager and I was managing a few departments. One of them was men's furnishings, and I got named the Tie Department Manager of the Year by the Neckware Association of America. At that point, I had no idea that they existed, but I became their biggest fan when they told me not only did I win the award, but they wanted to fly me to New York to present it to me.

I … got to experience New York, and I took a tour on the Circle Line around Manhattan. And I have a picture of me standing there on the boat with the twin towers right over my right shoulder. And this was June 2001.

9-11 shut down the industry, and it shut down my opportunity to fly. And I thought to myself, ‘What am I doing?’ I'm doing well in this career. And I know there's more opportunities for me. I was up for promotion. I said this just isn't the path though that I wanted to follow.

And so at that point I got motivated. So I wanted to be in the industry. I wanted to be a part of the rebirth and regrowth of general aviation, and I wanted to get into airports.

And you're not wearing a tie.

It’s Friday (laughing). I had one on yesterday. I have a great big collection. I debated it. But I said, yeah, this is a radio interview, right? So …

You were director of the Manhattan airport before coming to Wichita. What did you learn in Manhattan that will help you in your role in Wichita?

It's a different scale, and so there's added complexity. But there's a lot of good lessons learned of how to interact with the community, building relationships across the board, working with … regional groups like the chamber and other stakeholders in identifying the needs that are out there.

People have complained for decades about Wichita's air service. What would you say to those critics?

The best way for us to build air service is to use the air service. So you know as funny as that sounds, the more people who fly locally and the more people that we can show are traveling, that's what really helps us build … an argument to continue to build new routes, new destinations, and hopefully get the places that you want to be at the times you want to be.

Does Wichita have the ability to attract more carriers or expand its number of direct flights, or are we kind of as big as we're going to get in that category?

I think there's always opportunity for growth and new routes. And so that's something we're going to continue to explore.

Right now we have … 12 direct locations and three seasonal ones. But we have a wish list of 10 locations that we're looking at and we're trying to focus on. And most of those locations are built off of where do people want to fly? Right now, there's a lot of leisure travelers, but business travel historically drives the market.

So there's a lot of challenges ahead. I'm not going to say it's impossible, but … it's a hard path to climb. But I think eventually we can get there.

What are the … biggest problems that commercial aviation is going to face over … the next decade?

I was going to say the biggest challenge right now is overcoming the pandemic and the regulatory reaction to it. And so that is a huge question mark of where are we going to land with new restrictions? How's the government going to respond if a new variant comes in?

We live in a highly regulated environment in the airport, a lot of federal agency interaction – FAA, TSA – but there's a lot of other agencies that we deal with as well. So … what is our regulatory environment going to look like? And how's it going to actually afford us opportunities to continue to grow?

When you fly, do you fly as Jesse Romo, guy on vacation, or Jesse Romo, airport director?

You know, it's hard to turn that off. When you're on the aircraft and you're taxiing, I can't help when I'm at other airports, I start looking at their markings and signage.

I try to walk around the terminal and see what concessions they have, what new things they're doing, and I'll take lots of pictures. I always wonder, ‘Is security watching me?’

Air traffic numbers have rebounded this year after a dismal 2020. But business travel, as you mentioned, is still lagging. Will business travel ever return to prepandemic levels?

It may lag a little bit, but as the economy rebounds and travel budgets kick in …

I know that there's been a lot of concern with replacement of meetings with Zoom or other technology options. But at the end of the day, you still need the face to face interactions. So whether it's Zoom or (Microsoft) Teams … they're good business tools in certain situations. But it's just one of many tools and nothing beats going face to face and meeting with clients … visiting locations and seeing for yourself.

Tell me about your first flight in a smaller airplane. What was that like?

Oh, man. This was back in 1993. So my first two loves in life were baseball and airplanes. And so I had the opportunity right after high school to go to flight school and do some flight training. I did a discovery flight out of Santa Monica Airport.

And it was just such a beautiful, pristine day. And to be able to get away from the madness of the city chaos after fighting traffic on the 405 and being able to get that aerial perspective …

I was hooked and that was it. That was it for me. That's what I wanted to do.

Tom joined KMUW in 2017 after spending 37 years with The Wichita Eagle where he held a variety of reporting and editing roles. He also is host of The Range, KMUW’s weekly show about where we live and the people who live here. Tom is an adjunct instructor in the Elliott School of Communication at Wichita State University.