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When you board an airplane, the welcoming flight crew gives you a sense of confidence that you’re in good hands. When you meet Mike Daigle, the new executive director at South Bend Airport, you get the same feeling of confidence that the future of the airport is in good hands.
|Mike Daigle, executive director, South Bend Airport|
Daigle took the helm from John Schalliol, who retired at the end of February. In implementing his vision of the airport’s future, Daigle will focus on what it can be and not on what it cannot be. “We’re never going to be able to provide the level of non-stop flights that Chicago can. But what we can do is provide exemplary service to every customer. Our new terminal provides a beautiful experience for people getting on and off the plane. People coming through either live here, work here, recreate here or are coming here to do one of those things. The South Bend Airport is part of their full experience. One of the areas we need to improve on is capturing the people not using us and going to another airport.”
Daigle’s qualifications for the South Bend position come from deep roots in the aviation business. The first 20 years of his 35-year career were served in the Aviation Branch of the U.S. Army. “I started out as an airplane mechanic turning wrenches and then spent almost 19 years flying helicopters all over the world. I fell in love with this industry — and spent time as a test pilot, instructor, examiner, director of safety, director of training, airfield commander, airport manager and executive director,” Daigle said. “But no matter what the job being done is, we still are all in the customer service business.”
Young eyes on the future
With seven busy weeks on the new job, Mike and his wife Marcia are settling into the South Bend area after his five-year post as deputy executive director at Capital Region International Airport in Lansing, Mich. Prior to their move, the Daigles had visited South Bend but hadn’t spent a great deal of time here.
“There are so many great things in this region. We have some phenomenal restaurants, lots of entertainment options and the universities,” Daigle said. “I love college towns, and one of the reasons is the young adults and the thirst and passion they have for the future. We should look through their eyes at what we can be, what we should be.
“And they also aren’t afraid to speak up when they think the older generation is missing the boat, as my 26-year-old son does occasionally,” he continued. “Everyone we have met here says good things about the area, and they are proud this is their home. I have traveled around the world, and there is a certain genuineness of people here in the upper Midwest.”
Airports as economic engines
Daigle brings experience from other markets in working with economic development corporations and chamber groups, having learned the power of airports as economic engines for their communities. “The South Bend Airport is responsible for approximately 750 direct jobs in the local economy,” he noted, “and has an economic impact of over $430 million per year. We have that impact because people are using our facility. To improve those numbers, we need to get more people using the facility.
“We need to get those who are bypassing our facility to realize its advantages. As I get out into the community more and find out from people why they aren’t using us, we will learn from that. I have heard that sometimes we are $40–$60 more expensive than other airports. But people need to realize all of the costs associated with traveling to another airport,” Daigle said. “How much is gas, parking and tolls? And how much is your time worth? I would much rather fly and let someone else make sure I get to a connecting flight rather than worrying myself about a flat tire or an accident or traffic jams.”
On the airline side, Daigle will continue to work on bringing more airlines and more connectivity here. He already has made numerous trips to airlines to tell them about the economic opportunity that exists for them in South Bend. Delta has added a fourth flight from South Bend to Atlanta starting in June, and Allegiant has recently announced a connection from here to Punta Gorda, Fla., which will also start in June.
Good for the carriers, good for the airport
Marketing is an important issue for airline carriers. “Our marketing efforts in South Bend are an extension of their efforts,” Daigle said. “They have a strong database of their travelers and know what they want, and we will work in concert with them.”
There are always challenges along the way to airport industry growth, including weather problems, mechanical difficulties and financial issues with the airlines. “It’s a very complex industry, but it works very well. The aviation model in this country is what the rest of the world built their aviation model on,” said Daigle.
“The work John Schalliol and his team did here was fantastic and provided me with a phenomenal facility and staff. John has been a true gentleman and has helped me immensely in the transition and with understanding the background of how and why we got to where we are today,” said Daigle. “Like Emeril Lagasse says, I just want to try to figure out how to ‘kick it up a notch.’”
Visit our multimedia section to see video of Phil D'Amico's WNIT Economic Outlook featuring Mike Daigle and John Schalliol. http://www.southbendon.com/multimedia