New Reno airport CEO Daren Griffin talks ‘busy, hectic, challenging’ first 2 months

RENO, Nev. — Passenger trips through Reno-Tahoe International Airport rose again in August, continuing a streak of four consecutive months of improving travel numbers during the turbulent coronavirus pandemic.

In all, 183,343 passengers were served in August, up about 42,300 from July, according to the Reno-Tahoe Airport Authority (RTAA).

Still, due to COVID-19’s heavy impact on the air travel industry, passenger trips in August were down 57% from August 2019, when 431,640 travelers used Nevada’s second-largest airport.

The monthly year-over-year decrease is a microcosm of the pandemic’s long-term impact this year.

During the first eight months of 2020, Reno-Tahoe International Airport served 1.3 million passengers, which equates to a 54% slide compared to the same period last year, according to RTAA, which also oversees nearby Reno-Stead Airport.

With the region on the cusp of the winter season — which this year will likely bring fewer ski-toting tourists — the NNBW recently sat down with new RTAA CEO Daren Griffin to talk about winter travel projections, the latest trends in air travel and the biggest challenges and opportunities on the horizon.

Q: How are you settling into your new role amid everything that’s happening in the world and region?

Daren Griffin: Well, today (Sept. 25) is actually the end of my second month, exactly, so it’s been a really busy, hectic, challenging two months. There’s been a lot going on at both the airports. A lot of operational challenges, all the challenges you have when you start a new job. I’m trying to learn an organization; I’m trying to learn the Reno-Tahoe community; all of the really vital stakeholders and partners that we have. I’m really pleased, and I hope in the next two months from now, I’ll feel as good about it as I do today, because I really feel good.

Passengers line up to check in inside Reno-Tahoe International Airport on Friday, Sept. 25.

Q: Two months in, what are the biggest things you’ve learned about the community?

Griffin: It is so apropos that it’s the Biggest Little City. There’s one degree of separation here; everybody knows everybody is what I’m learning. So, I’m really connecting into that network and I’m constantly in conversations with key stakeholders or partners or I’m building relationships. And the other side of that coin is everybody knows everybody, so you really have a full 360-degree vision of what you’re working on, how it impacts people or their constituencies, and where there are unintended impacts. It’s a unique environment in many ways, but I think it creates a huge opportunity to plug in as a full partner — the airport, the transportation experience, everything we’re working on — and really take it to the next level with all the community partners here. That’s probably something that really stood out to me the most. 

Q: Obviously when the pandemic hit, passenger counts took quite a dip throughout the industry. What are the latest trends the Reno airport is seeing? 

Griffin: We’ve seen a dramatic impact in the airlines pulling back airplanes. Our September flight schedule became something far less than what we hoped it would be. There’s been a significant pull-down from Southwest Airlines. They’re flying right now nine flights a day here — that’s the lowest they have ever flown. This is their 30-year anniversary (at the Reno airport) in November. They started in November of 1990 with 12 flights a day; that was the fewest flights we had had (before this year). It is uncharted territory for the airlines to pull flights like this. But, they can’t fly them empty; there’s no upside to that. So, they’re reacting very quickly now to bookings. And when you pull out your smartphone and book a flight, they see that. And when hundreds of thousands or millions of people do that, they react to that, and they react the other way when people don’t do it. I’d say 60% decline (in passengers) on average is where we’re at year-over-year. We hope to see that improve as we get toward winter.

Q: Is there a way to project what winter tourism will look like coming into the ski season? 

Griffin: We have forecast the best that we can, and we’re watching closely now the ski resorts what are they doing up at the lake That business is changing; they are not going to have the crowds that they’ve had in the past. There’s a ripple effect from all of that. There may be less of a crush of people. Or maybe those off-days that might’ve been slower, it evens out, where as many people are going mid-week as on the weekends, and maybe we benefit from that? We are trying to forecast the winter season because it’s such an important part of what we do here. Our forecast is conservative. There’s just no reason right now to think that we’re going to start to see a steep recovery angle until there is a medical, science solution, either a treatment that really negates the impacts of COVID-19 or the vaccine. Every industry is anxious for that. 

Q: Switching gears, how big was it for the airport authority to recently be awarded $1.2 million from the FAA’s Voluntary Airport Low Emission Program (VALE)?

Griffin: That’s a game-changer in terms of environmental stewardship. It is exciting. And it takes a partnership; it can’t be just the airport that wants that. We have to have airline partnership and be willing to get rid of all of the equipment that is diesel-driven or propane or any of those carbon-based fuels. And to go to electric ground support equipment for the tugs and the vehicles hauling around the food and the water and just all of the service equipment that when you look out the airport window, the flurry of activity, all of that is carbon-based transportation. To be able to make that paradigm shift and take all of that carbon out of the environment reduces our carbon footprint, and makes us much more of an environmental steward. I’m ecstatic that we were able to make that leap with our partners, and it benefits the environment that we all live in.

Q: With Alaska Airlines recently adding non-stop flights to Palm Springs and LA, and JSX launching hop-on flights to Burbank, what does that say to you about the Reno market?

Griffin: There are several messages there. A lot of airports would like to have a new service coming to them right now. A lot of airports have lost service. There’s going to start to be a real score sheet of winners and losers in this when it comes to air service. I’m grateful that we are hopefully on the winners’ side of the category right now. I think a pivot to leisure travel is something we definitely see happening with airlines right now. Businesses are going to be slow to return to the level of business travel activity that they had before. However, Americans have been on some form of lockdown or restricted movement for six months now, and I think we see a growing desire for leisure travel to visit family and friends that you’ve been missing or to take the vacations that have been canceled or delayed or you just need a mental health break. We have aspirations for other Southern California destinations — we’re working on those with our airline partners — because it’s just such a huge market. You almost can never get enough. And it also opens up sub-markets of Southern California for us. 

Q: Lastly, what is your vision for the airport for the rest of 2020 and beyond? 

Griffin: My philosophy’s always been — an airport is a great barometer of the region’s economic health. As the region goes, so goes the airport. As the businesses get stronger, as the population grows, as prosperity abounds, air travel is something that many Americans view as a way they like to spend their money, a way they want their vacation experiences, a way they want to stay connected to family and friends, and a way they want to take their businesses on the road and make those person-to-person connections. Prior to the pandemic, 2 million Americans a day were getting on airplanes. We’re a long way’s from that today, but I think when you look at the pandemic recovery, the recovery is going to be at different speeds in different parts of the country for a lot of reasons — some of them obvious, some of them more nuanced.

My vision is, I think a lot of the elements are in place for our recovery here in the Reno-Tahoe region to be faster than that of a lot of other places because of the diversity of the experiences that we have to offer, and the underlying economic health and potential that we have; 2013 to 2019 was an extraordinary period of growth in this region and at the airport. And were it not for a pandemic, we would’ve been breaking every record from an airport scorecard perspective this year. So we got set back on that like every airport. I think our ability to pivot and get back to that and then go into places we haven’t been before is right there. And I’m really excited to be here.

My vision is that we are going to be a fully engaged partner and try to anticipate that growth, so that we are the front door that everybody who lives here wants to have, and that our airport is preparing for the next generation of growth. The short-term vision is we’ve got to get through with what we’re dealing with right now, take care of our employees, take care of our families, partner with our businesses here in the airport — they’re hurting; we’re doing everything we can to help them through this period — because we want to have that family intact when we come out of it. And then we’re all going to prosper together across the region.

Note: This interview has been edited lightly for length and clarity.


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