In the last 50 years, there have been many Directors of Aviation at the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport but few about whom there was any urgency to retain them. But the current Director of Aviation, Iftikhar Ahmad, is one of the hottest guys in the nation in his field of work and the New Orleans Aviation Board is giving him a $35,000 a year raise that he didn’t ask for because they want to keep him here.
Restaurateur Ti Martin, a member of the Aviation Board, says, “He has come to have a lot of affection for New Orleans and the region and we need to lock him to finish what he has started.”
What he has started, with the complete support of Mayor Mitch Landrieu and the Aviation Board, is the complete makeover of the 67-year-old airport. Ahmad and his staff have proposed a brand-new terminal costing $826 million to be built facing Veterans Boulevard in Kenner on the eastern end of the airport tract. Ahmad also has the complete backing of Kenner Mayor Mike Yenni who agrees with Ti Martin that Ahmad is someone we need to keep here.
So who is this guy?
Ahmad was recruited to come here in 2010 when the incumbent director of aviation was ruined by an insurance-related scandal. Ahmad was the highly-touted director of the Dayton, Ohio airport. He was one of six finalists for the New Orleans job and the Aviation Board feels like they landed the airport equivalent of a Drew Brees in Ahmad.
Since arriving here, he has purged overpaid consultants from the airport’s payroll, lowered landing fees that were among the highest in the nation, brought five new airlines to the airport, rewritten 160 airport contracts, brought local restaurants as concessionaires to the airport and moved the airport up to the 37th slot among the busiest airports in the nation. Recently, Ahmad announced that Southwest Airlines has started a direct flight to Washington D.C. that is expected to handle 85,000 passengers a year.
But, best of all, Ahmad has turned out to be a visionary who is planning a best-of-the-best new terminal for Armstrong International. If all goes well, they’ll be driving piles in October. And if all goes well, the new terminal will be this Mayor Landrieu’s Superdome.
So what kind of guy is this over-achiever?
“I’ve come to love New Orleans and the entire South Louisiana region,” he says. “I really didn’t ask for a raise. Of course, I’m very appreciative, not just for the money but because the Aviation Board thought so highly of me.” Ahmad says he wants to sink his roots into South Louisiana. He has his two sons enrolled in a prep school here that is renowned for teaching science and math. Under Ahmad’s direction, it appears that Armstrong International will soon handle more than 10 million passengers a year for the first time in its history.
Ahmad has also been selected to serve on the Greater New Orleans Convention & Visitors Bureau. The CVB is hoping to increase the number of visitors to the city from the current nine million to 13 million by 2018, the city’s 300th birthday celebration. Ahmad is committed to using the airport as a catalyst for tourism growth. “The three things the airlines care about most are profits, profits and profits,” he says. “If we build a state of the art terminal and show them how we can help them increase their profits, they’ll be glad to come to New Orleans and South Louisiana.”
Ahmad admits other airports have been checking him out to see if he is interested in moving. “I’m very happy right here,” he says. “We’ve got a tremendous challenge ahead of us in building a new terminal. I’ve been able to put together a great team here and we’re working very hard to make this airport the best it has ever been. Wouldn’t that be great?”
Allan Katz spent 25 years as a political reporter and columnist at The Times-Picayune, and is now editor of the Kenner Star and host of several televsion programs, including the Louisiana Newsmaker on Cox Cable. Danae Columbus is executive producer of Louisiana Newsmaker, and has had a 30-year career in public relations, including stints at City Hall and the Dock Board. They both currently work for the Orleans Parish School Board. Among the recent candidates who have been represented by their public relations firm are City council members Stacy Head and Jared Brossett, Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne and former Councilwoman Cynthia Hedge-Morrell.