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Taking the airport to new heights

Navy veteran Michael Giardino is director of the Greater Rochester International Airport. (Photo by Kimberly McKinzie)


As a child, Michael Giardino spent a lot of time at Greater Rochester International Airport watching his father take flying lessons, unaware that decades later he would have an office on the second floor of the facility.

Although his love of all things flight-related started at a young age, it was in 1985 that Giardino walked away from graduate school and into a U.S. Navy recruiting office. It was an about-face that would have a resounding effect on his career, personal life and who he would become as a person and business leader.

“A friend of mine said he was going to join the Navy and be a pilot and I said, ‘You’re a knucklehead. If you can do it, I can do it,’” Giardino, 53, recalls. “And I went to a recruiter the following Monday.”

Three decades later, Giardino serves as director of aviation for the airport. He earned his wings and spent 26 years piloting helicopters for the Navy.

“I went from a long-haired college student to an ensign in the U.S. Navy,” Giardino recalls. “And I loved it.”

At the airport Giardino oversees 100 staff and operations of the facility, which serves nearly 2.4 million passengers annually. The airport has an annual budget of $32 million and handles roughly 150 flights daily from its 22 passenger gates.

Giardino works closely with the seven commercial airlines serving passengers from here: American Airlines Inc., United Airlines Inc., Delta Air Lines Inc., JetBlue Airways Corp., Southwest Airlines Co., Allegiant Air and Air Canada. He also works with the Federal Aviation Administration and the Transportation Security Administration.

The Monroe County Airport Authority’s mission is to ensure the airport provides safe, efficient and economical air transportation and it promotes economic development, trade and tourism throughout the region.

Giardino’s job is a lot like running a small community, he says. His years in the Navy prepared him for that.

Working at early age
Giardino’s first foray into the working world was alongside his father, who owned two local dairies in Gates and Brockport. He grew up on a milk truck, delivering to local grocers and schools. After his father died in a car accident in 1973, his older brother started a general contracting business here and Giardino labored for him.

“These experiences taught me a lot about hard work and small business,” Giardino says. “Small- business owners have to be very good at their core business, but they also have to make sure all the administrative stuff gets done.”

Giardino comes from a family of entrepreneurs, including hairdressers, barbers and grocery store owners. From them he learned that working hard was to be admired and long hours were OK.

“Quality of work speaks for itself, and your customers will come back if the quality is good,” he says.

After high school Giardino pursued a political science degree at the University of Rochester. While there, he saw an ad for a local rock band.

As lead singer of Iron Angel, Giardino and his bandmates won the Monroe County Fair Battle of the Bands, which included a gig at the former Red Creek in Henrietta and three hours of recording studio time.

“The type of music that we played, which was hard rock/heavy metal, we came to the conclusion with the owners of Red Creek that we were never going to play at Red Creek and we walked away from that,” he recalls with a laugh. “But the three hours of recording time we used.”

While he was working a late-night shift at a 7-Eleven store he heard Iron Angel being played on the radio.

“That was very cool,” he says, noting that he remains in touch with his former bandmates.

Giardino knew that being a musician was not something he wanted to do with the rest of his life, and he also realized political science and becoming a lawyer were not going to work for him. He transferred to SUNY College at Brockport, where he earned a degree in meteorology. Upon graduation he went to SUNY Albany, where he planned to get a master’s degree in atmospheric sciences.

Career path
Instead, he joined the Navy.

While in the Navy Giardino flew H-46 and H-60 helicopters. Primarily stationed on the East Coast, Giardino also attended the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., in the early 1990s and from 1996 to 1997 was a flight instructor in San Diego.

In 1999 Giardino had an opportunity to come full circle: He flew the CH-46D Sea Knight helicopter from Norfolk, Va., to the Rochester International Air Show, where he served as a static display participant for the event.

“It was great to bring a little bit of my Navy life back home to Rochester,” he says. “Friends and family got to see what I did for the Navy, and my Navy buddies got to see where I came from. Who knew I’d retire years later and end up here?”

In 2001 Giardino graduated from the Naval War College in Newport, R.I., and then went to work at the Pentagon. He was at the Pentagon on 9/11, as well as during the anthrax scares and the Beltway sniper attacks in 2002.

“I enjoyed my time in the Pentagon,” he says. “I learned a lot and I worked with some great people.”

Giardino spent three years in Germany; while there, he was deployed to Afghanistan as chief of air operations for NATO. He spent time in Kabul in 2005 and in 2006 served as the lead U.S. planner in Kandahar as the U.S. was transitioning the base to a NATO base.

While in Kandahar, Giardino began thinking about what he would do when he retired from the Navy. At the base he learned how to run a community—from power, water and sewage systems to how to house people, feed them and do laundry.

When he returned to Ramstein, Germany, Giardino negotiated orders to be the executive officer at Naval Air Station Key West. His four years as second-in-command in Florida further prepared him for his job at GRIA, he says.

Giardino oversaw an airfield, two marinas, a port facility for large Navy ships, base housing for more than 300 units and recreational facilities for families, among other things.

“It was like being the city manager of a small city,” Giardino says. “That’s when I said I think municipal government is what I want to do.”

When he retired in 2011, Giardino began looking for municipal opportunities.

“I put out about 100 cover letters and resumes, and the Village of Brockport answered my call,” he says.

Giardino served as manager/treasurer in Brockport until taking the job at the airport in 2012.

“I would say overall the military experience rounded me out tremendously. And it also allowed me to explore things I never thought I’d explore,” he says. “So it really did give me an education and it worked for me. I know it doesn’t work for everybody. But the military did wonders for me.”

Coming to county
When Giardino joined the airport it was on the heels of former director Susan Walsh’s resignation, following a charge of driving while intoxicated. Walsh had replaced David Damelio, who had resigned in January 2011 following reports of misspending county money.

Since joining the organization, Giardino says non-airline revenue is up, while expenditures are down. A few years ago total budget for the airport was $34 million. In three years the airport has saved the airlines more than $4 million, Giardino notes.

“We try to keep their cost per (passenger boarding) down so they make more money per passenger and, hopefully, add more flights,” he explains. “It’s one of the reasons why, in a contraction environment, we were able to retain flights and recently add Allegiant.”

Airport revenue comes from an array of sources, Giardino says, including non-aeronautical areas such as parking, car rental concessions, land rent and other items. Parking contributes $6.5 million annually to the airport’s budget, while car rental and other concessions add up to some $5 million.

Aeronautical revenues contribute roughly $16 million to GRIA’s budget. Landing fees add some $7.5 million, while terminal fees, which include the ticket counter and gates, add up to another $5.5 million.

The airport receives $4.5 million per year in FAA entitlement grants for airfield upgrades and improvements, based on commercial airline activity. The airport is not funded through tax dollars, Giardino says.

The airport recently signed three-year lease agreements with some of its airline partners, including Southwest and JetBlue, and has received commitments from others, which means the airlines will continue to operate out of the Rochester airport. A 2011 study by the state Department of Transportation shows the local airport is responsible for creating and sustaining 10,000 jobs, directly and indirectly, while contributing $800 million to the local economy each year.

The airport, which was built in 1927, has 58 outbound flights and 58 inbound flights daily. That likely will not increase without effort from the community, in particular the business community, Giardino says.

“Business travel is most of who travels here. And airlines look at business travel because they pay more money per seat,” he says. “It’s very important that the business community use their airport because if you don’t, you’ll lose service.”

If there are fewer than 100 people on a flight, the region runs the risk of losing that flight. And the only flights out of Rochester consistently running with that many passengers are flights to Florida, which typically are leisure flights, Giardino says.

Southwest recently pulled two flights out of Rochester to the Midwest that were underperforming, and replaced them with one flight to the Baltimore/Washington area, where they have better connectivity and fewer delays.

“We must use the service that we get or we’re going to lose it. If you like your airport, use your airport, keep your airport,” Giardino says. “There are a lot of things we can do at the airport, like keep costs low and be a strong advocate for the community, but the community also has to do their part.”

A couple of decades ago airfare out of Rochester was one of the highest in the nations, Giardino acknowledges, so many people got into the habit of driving to Buffalo for flights. In recent years, however, Rochester flights have been below the national average.

“We stress what we offer: We’re convenient, we’re just around the corner and we’re affordable. Our parking rates are the lowest in the state,” he says.

Giardino says the biggest challenges he sees in his job are airline consolidations and the reduction in the frequency of flights.

In addition, adds airport operations manager Timothy Woolston, the changing regulatory environment can be challenging.

“Are we meeting those expectations that they have for us and staying current with industry changes? The changes over the last 25 years have been astronomical and trying to keep up with that is a challenge,” Woolston says.

But it is a fun challenge, he acknowledges.

Airport fire chief Todd Bane has been with the organization 34 years and says the face of aviation has changed dramatically in the last three decades. FAA regulations can be challenging, but security also is an issue, he says.

“Security is a major challenge for the airport,” Bane says. “There are always people looking to do bad things. They look at aviation as a prime target, so we always have to be ready.”

Despite the challenges, the working atmosphere is somewhat relaxed, and employees describe the environment as family-like.

“I think it’s an enjoyable atmosphere. We try to create an atmosphere where people want to come to work,” Woolston says. “It’s non-adversarial. We try to keep it light.”

Adds Bane: “It’s a great place to work. Most everybody knows everybody else. It’s a great team here at the airport.”

Teamwork is a must, Giardino says.

“It’s absolutely collaborative. I always point to the binders on the credenza,” he says, pointing to several thick manuals. “We have rule books. But it’s the team that makes that work.”

Giardino’s management style reflects his beliefs in teamwork. He is hands-on when necessary, but he also walks around a lot, observing.

Giardino does not micromanage, Bane says, but you can tell he has a military background. “He will tell you what to do. There’s an assignment and he expects you to complete it,” Bane adds. “He allows you to get your work done in the way that you see fit.”

Giardino is a “chain-of-command” type of manager, Woolston adds.

“He allows his subordinates to do their jobs and he guides them when they need guidance,” Woolston says. “When we have questions or are looking for direction we can go to Mike. But he really puts it back to us as department heads to manage our departments within the confines of the regulations.”

What makes the airport successful, Bane says, is having the right person leading it.

“This guy came to us understanding what it takes to run an airport. An airport is like a small city or town,” Bane says. “We have a person that’s leading the airport now that gets it.”

The best part of his job is the people, Giardino says.

“This has got to be one of the best staffs I’ve ever worked with in my entire life, and I’ve worked with some great people,” he says.

Giardino says his passion and integrity are his strengths, and he learned patience from his first flight instructor, Capt. Billy Young, whose call sign was Stump.

“I had never flown before. We got in the air and I looked around. And I kept looking around,” he recalls with a laugh. “Because for the first time in my life I was flying above treetops with this bubble canopy and I’m not in an aircraft where you’re just peeking out a window. And he’s just screaming over the intercom, put the gear up, get the flaps up, all the things I was supposed to do real fast. He had to be the most patient man.”

The advice he would give other business leaders is knowing the importance of patience.

“Doing it right the first time is fast enough,” he says. “You don’t get many second chances in the aviation business.”

At home
Giardino was born in Rochester and raised in Charlotte. He lives there with his wife, Janice. He has two sons, Kyle, 26, and Dominic, 21. Another son, Mitchell, died when he was 8 months old of a rare, congenital disorder.

His favorite family memories are the births of all of his children and his wedding, he says. His musical gene was passed on and one of his sons is a student at the Eastman School of Music.

Long-time friend Gregory May says family is important to Giardino, as is the church and his work with Veterans Outreach Center Inc.

“When he was in the military he was always doing charity for veterans,” May says. “It’s very important to him to be part of the community.”

Giardino also is involved with the Rochester Rotary Club, which runs the Sunshine Campus in Rush, a fully accessible residential summer camp that helps children with paralysis and other physical challenges and their families.

May calls his friend “dynamic.”

“I think that he is very intense on everything he does. He’s always been that way,” May says. “Whatever he was doing at the moment was the greatest thing in the world. Whether that’s being a friend, or studying meteorology in college or flying helicopters, that was always the greatest thing in the world.”

While Giardino is humble, he has a few accomplishments he particularly is proud of.

In 1999 Hurricane Floyd hit the East Coast with a vengeance. When it struck North Carolina it caused billions of dollars in damage and widespread flooding where Hurricane Dennis had hit just weeks earlier. Giardino was part of the rescue efforts that saved hundreds of lives.

“I got 110 rescues after Hurricane Floyd. That was pretty satisfying,” he says. “Pulling people off of rooftops. That was probably the best day of flying ever.”

And though he is proud to have earned his Navy wings, one thing takes precedence.

“Husband and father are No. 1,” Giardino says. “Family is No. 1, all the time,”

Michael Giardino
Position: Director of Aviation, Greater Rochester International Airport
Age: 53
Education: B.S., meteorology, SUNY College at Brockport, 1985; M.A., national strategic studies, Naval War College, 2001
Residence: Charlotte
Family: Wife, Janice; sons Kyle, 26, and Dominic, 21
Activities: Family, golf, working with veterans
Quote: “Doing it right the first time is fast enough. You don’t get many second chances in the aviation business.”

11/13/15 (c) 2015 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-546-8303 or email rbj@rbj.net.


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