Airport Director, Lynchburg Regional Airport

Lynchburg Business Editor Shelley Basinger: When did you develop a passion for flying?
Andrew La Gala: Aviation is something I have always loved—I have always loved airplanes and being around airports. I earned my student pilot’s license while in high school when I was 17.

SB: Did you ever consider being a pilot?
AL: I have always been a life planner. When I started out, I knew what I didn’t want to do, and that was to be a professional pilot and be away from home. I have two older children, a 27-year-old son and 20-year-old daughter. I always wanted to make sure I could stay in the aviation field and be around airplanes all day, but also come home in the evenings and have dinner with my family.

SB: Why did you decide to make Lynchburg a part of your plan?
AL: A few years ago, I received my accreditation with the American Association of Airport Executives. This designation sets you apart in the industry and means one has the academic knowledge to manage any medium-sized or smaller airport. Most of my career I had worked at large airports, and I said to myself, “I want to manage a small regional airport in a hometown setting during the last 10 or so years of my career.” What better airport to pick than Lynchburg! I got remarried about a year and a half ago and this is where my wife and I want to stay and retire. It has a small—but growing—airport, thriving community and hometown feel. I came to Lynchburg in November 2018 to take the job as the airport’s deputy director.

SB: You came on board as former director Mark Courtney planned to retire in the fall of 2019. I’m assuming that was always the plan for you to take over?
AL: There was a very strong succession plan with Mark and the City of Lynchburg leadership team. When I interviewed with Mark, he was really looking for someone who could take his place and planned to be here for a while. He is a monumental person and left me a silver spoon. I could not ask for a better condition for this airport to be in when I stepped into his position last year.

SB: Moving forward, what’s your top long-term goal for Lynchburg Regional?
AL: One of the major requests from the community is increased air service.
I’m very responsive to that. We had six flights and then in the fall of 2019 we increased that to seven flights with American Airlines. Of course, we have had to reduce the number of flights immensely due to low demand from the COVID-19 pandemic. But we are still working with United Airlines to make sure our name is on the list for their possible future regional expansion. For example, when they open their next phase, we want to be on the radar to get service to Dulles. I’m also looking to talk to United and American Airlines to see who would give us regional service to Chicago. Something else I’m working towards is getting weekly service to a popular destination city. We have the demand—we just don’t have the seats.

SB: The pandemic is hitting the travel industry hard this year. How much do you think the airport will be affected in the long run… and can it withstand that hit?
AL: The pandemic is no doubt unprecedented. As with all commercial service airports in the country, LYH has had its share of loss due to this pandemic.

Up through February of this year, we were growing with seven flights a day and larger regional jets serving our community. This fell sharply during the months leading up to June. As we move toward the fall, we are working closely with the airline to recover our flights back to pre-pandemic levels.

Depending on the economy’s recovery phases, we can anticipate flight frequency to increase at a gradual pace through the end of next year.

The CARES Act 2020 federal stimulus carved out a relief package for airports to help during the recovery process. We here at LYH have been fortunate to be part of this stimulus and will be receiving grant funds that will be used for operating revenues lost from declined passenger demand and reduced flights. Due to our low debt position, we will prioritize maintaining employment levels and funding our FY 2020 operating expenses. Funds will be allocated to ongoing FY 2021 operating budget shortfalls until such time our passenger demand and flights increase. We should be able to continue this fluid plan well into 2021-2022.

SB: Lynchburg Regional is also in the process of converting to an airport authority instead of a city-run department. How is that going?
AL: When airports get to a particular size or revenue point, it just becomes natural to become an airport authority, and a governing body is warranted. We have legislation in place for an authority, that’s already in force. The existing enabling legislation (passed by the General Assembly) requires the city and one or more surrounding localities to form an Airport Authority. We have interest from Amherst and Campbell counties in the first phase of the project. City Council has directed staff to develop and present a plan for council’s consideration going forward.

SB: Now to some quick questions about you as a leader. How would you describe your leadership style?
AL: I always operate at the macro level—I’m not a micromanager. I believe in my team and the staff. They all have a role to play and do a great job. I have an open-door policy that anyone can talk to me at any time. And I always try to lead by example. One of those being, the airport director does push snow. I will have them digging and I have a shovel, too.

SB: When conflict arises, how do you handle it?
AL: In our industry, we are very sensitive about safety and security, so when problems come up that require attention, you mitigate them as soon as possible. But I’m all about leading, growing and developing the team. We look at the problem at hand, see where the shortfalls are, look at our policies to see what we could do better and then move forward from that point. You always give the employee the chance to see that progression.

SB: What does an average day look like for you?
AL: It’s about 50/50 in the office and out. First thing in the morning, I walk around and check in on my team to see how they are and how flights are doing. Then I spend about an hour or two in the office catching up on emails. I lean a lot on my two assistant airport directors as well. I work closely with other airports and often conference with them. We have a tight network in Virginia. I make it a point to go out and greet passengers on a regular basis, because we are very appreciative of those choosing to fly out of their hometown airport.

SB: What’s life like for you outside of work?
AL: My wife and I recently purchased 13 acres in the City of Lynchburg, so we are enjoying getting into farming and gardening. As a private pilot, I also love flying during my off time. We like to spend time on the property, land and agriculture. We do like to travel occasionally, especially to Tampa where my kids are. Anything outside—hiking, biking, kayaking. We really love it here!