A Closer Look: Brian Mulcahy
Assistant executive director, Des Moines International Airport
Brian Mulcahy was recently promoted to the role of assistant executive director at the Des Moines International Airport, moving up from the finance director’s position, which he held for about 10 years. Before he came to the airport Mulcahy worked in the insurance industry and later worked full time for the Iowa National Guard and went to Iraq in 2008 and 2009. He stayed on with the Guard for a couple of years after he returned in an operations role before joining the airport.
Mulcahy said the leadership opportunities provided by the military and leading people who were technical experts has helped prepare him for his new role and for the step he eventually hopes to make – someday moving into the top leadership role at the airport. But until then his sights are set on making the airport improvement plan a reality and helping the airport grow, add airlines and reach 5 million passengers by 2032.
You’re stepping into this new role at a time of growth and expansion as the airport undertakes its airport improvement plan. What are your short-term and long-term goals in your new role?
The near-term goal is to make sure we can fund the new terminal and get at least phase 1A possibly get phase 1B built. Obviously that gap is still there, so the immediate goal is to fill that gap and get construction underway and meet the timelines in terms of the [American Rescue Plan] money and things like that. Longer term. five to 10 years down the road, we really want the airport to be in a position where we can handle the traffic and we’re in a position to compete with more airlines because we will have the capacity for them to come in.
Will that continue to be a challenge as growth occurs faster than projected?
I think it will be because it’s dependent on building the facilities we need to do that. And that comes with the financial challenge we have. I do think by 2032 we’ll have the chance to be processing 5 million passengers through here a year. Our peak in 2019 was 3 million, so if we have 5% or 6% growth compounded every year, we can get there, and that’s the challenge is to be ready for that.
What are some other challenges the industry is facing?
Just thinking about our future revenue streams, one-third of our revenue comes from parking here at the airport. Depending on what happens with autonomous vehicles and things like that, that could impact our revenue streams. And when we think about the bonding we’re going to be doing to build the terminal, that parking revenue is pretty critical to paying back those bonds. So that’s a challenge for all airports, because most airports are in the same boat because we get a portion of our non-aeronautical revenue from parking. Another challenge is the current employment market, just retaining talent, but again all airports are in the same situation. There’s some unique things about working at an airport, and we hate to lose people because you lose that institutional knowledge. We’ve had a fair number of employees retire over the past 10 years and as we’ve replaced those employees our workforce in general has gotten younger and we’re building that experience back up.
What are some strengths about the airport that excite you for the future?
The growth in the metro area is exciting, and we have a fairly strong economy and coming out of the pandemic people have had an increased desire to travel, which is good for the airport. People seem to want to get out and go. That’s exciting. There’s a new term out there, “bleisure travel.” As people blend leisure and business travel together, that’s a good thing because a lot of times spouses are going on a trip or taking the kids along on a trip because work is more flexible. All those are exciting trends for growth for the airport, and the more the airport grows the more interest there will be in other airlines coming in.
What is your management style?
I prefer to let people work independently. Give them tasks and purposes. It’s kind of a military thing. Let them do it to the best of their ability and the way they know how. I don’t like to micromanage anybody. I think most people want to work that way. If they have questions, there is an open door to come ask, but otherwise they just want to be able to get the work done the way they know how.
The assistant executive director’s position sat vacant for several years after current Executive Director Kevin Foley was hired in 2014. The airport authority board decided to fill it this year for two reasons: One was to add expertise needed for the airport improvement plan and the other was to put in place a succession plan for the day when Kevin decides to retire. Do you see yourself moving into the executive director’s position someday?
Yeah. Obviously that will be the board’s decision at that time and when Kevin decides to retire, but I certainly want to be prepared for that and see myself in that role. It’s good to have a succession plan. The executive director is a key role here, obviously, and for continuity purposes I think it’s important to have that plan in place.
What is one thing the airport is looking at that maybe people haven’t heard about before?
Electric vehicles is probably the big one, but autonomous parking shuttles is another one we’re starting to look at now. There is some talk of that at some airports across the country, but it seems to be quite a ways down the road. I think the key to having it happen sooner would be having dedicated lanes or roadway for an autonomous shuttle. We haven’t really decided if that’s the way we want to go, but it’s one thing we’re looking at and starting to think about. We pretty much designed the terminal area, but now we’re starting to plan a little more from south of the terminal to the rental car and parking lots to really make sure how that’s all going to look in the future, and plan for capacity for the next few years. As we build the parking garage it’s going to be a construction zone around the terminal for a while. Parking is going to be a premium, so we have to think through how we’re going to get people to and from the remote lots easily and conveniently for them.