Midway through Project Gateway, Fort Wayne International Airport’s terminal expansion project, the traveling public has begun to see upgraded features. The ticketing area has been redesigned, the upper concourse has been extended to include two additional gates, and both areas have been completely refreshed in look and feel. Travelers will notice new lighting, intuitive way-finding, local artistry, state-of-the-art accommodations for special needs, and more engaging, passenger areas. The new space feels welcoming to inbound and outbound passengers alike, but one long-standing element outshines all the new features: the people who work here.
“An airport isn’t just a runway or an airplane or even a terminal,” says Scott Hinderman, executive director of the Fort Wayne-Allen County Airport Authority. “What makes an airport great is the people who make it happen.”
Hinderman oversees daily operations at both airports in Allen County: Fort Wayne International Airport (FWA) and Smith Field Airport (SMD). He sees the airports as a regional asset that should instill pride in the community, and he has built his team around that mission. The 108 paid staff members, as well as the contracted vendors who serve the facilities, share a passion for customer service.
“We walk the walk and talk the talk,” says purchasing manager Laura Hakes, who has worked for the Airport Authority for 31 years. “I wouldn’t be here for so long if I didn’t love it.”
Even with the challenges of serving passengers through the pandemic and construction from Project Gateway, airport workers continue to find new ways to make visitors feel welcome. For example, when COVID temporarily suspended the parking lot shuttle and then construction re-routed terminal access, customer service agent Julie Mongold stationed herself in front of the building to assist passengers who were unsure where to go.
“Change can rock people’s boat,” says Mongold. “I’m there to help them know where to go and offer a listening ear. Providing empathy is a big part of my job.”
Similarly, the extra activity in general aviation that grew during the pandemic has added a new level of complexity to Duane Roberts’ job. As a second-shift line service specialist, Roberts oversees portions of the fixed-based operations that provide fueling, maintenance and other services to the general aviation community at FWA and SMD. Alongside the construction, the number of locally based aircraft has increased, causing the Fort Wayne Aero Center to operate near capacity. Like his counterparts, Roberts has eagerly accepted the challenge.
“There’s a lot of movement on the ramp,” he says, “but it has been energizing to see our staff move and grow. We have really gelled as a team.”
Hinderman believes a service-oriented attitude starts with hiring people who share a desire to do the best they can simply because it is the right thing to do — not because they have to. In fact, says Hinderman, the best ideas for improvement have come from frontline people who care.
“Our whole team is pulling in the same direction,” says Hinderman. “We have good people. Not just good employees, but good people.”
This was never more evident than in June, when a powerful derecho brought damaging winds that closed the airport. Roberts asked off-duty members of his team to come to the airport to help with the clean-up. Though many had no power at home and had to navigate downed trees and other debris, they showed up and helped restore operations after only a few hours.
“That really speaks to our people,” says Roberts. “They were called and they came.”
The desire to offer the highest level of service drives performance behind the scenes as well as on the front lines. In fact, it is so deeply ingrained in the organization that even the design of Project Gateway reflects it. The Airport Authority has taken special care to ensure that the terminal feels welcoming to people of all abilities; they have even worked with local organizations like Turnstone and AWS Foundation to better understand a wide range of needs.
As a result, the new terminal includes a sensory room, an upgraded play area, a mother’s room, a cane trail, a hearing loop, signage for the visually impaired, curb cuts that facilitate ADA-compatible vehicles, a restroom with an adult changing table and a service animal relief area. In addition, the airport website is being upgraded to include the information people with disabilities need to help them plan travel.
Hinderman explains, “ADA compliance is not our benchmark. We want to be better than that.”
As people consider their air travel options, Hinderman hopes they will look to FWA first. While he understands there are sometimes price differences that affect decision-making, he points to other factors that can mitigate those differences. The level of service, convenience and facilities rise to the top. So, too, do the price of gas to drive elsewhere, additional travel time, parking fees, and the potential need for overnight lodging for early morning or late-night flights through other airports. FWA’s “First Fly the Fort” campaign aims to get more people to consider flying locally by highlighting what the airport has to offer and making a holistic comparison.
“Our airport offers the community access to the globe and traveling from here keeps those dollars in northeast Indiana. We want people to at least give us the first shot,” says Hinderman. “We understand that we may not be the right airport for everyone all the time, but we are the right airport for northeast Indiana.”
The data proves him right. The number of passengers in 2022 is on track to surpass the 2017 record year, and Hinderman has been working with airlines to accommodate the increase in demand. While there have been some route shifts, airlines have begun to bring larger planes that offer more total seats in and out of FWA.
None of this happens by accident: not the terminal expansion or friendly environment or the growth in numbers. It starts and ends with people who care.
“It takes a village,” says Hakes, “and that speaks to the dedication of our staff.”
For his part, Hinderman says simply, “We are people’s first impression. We want them to see we’re a great community when they first step off the plane. Likewise, we want our community to be proud of their airport.”
General Manager: Executive Director: Scott Hinderman
Address: 3801 W. Ferguson Road, Fort Wayne, Indiana 46809
Phone: (260) 747-4146
Products & Services: The Fort Wayne-Allen County Airport Authority owns and operates Fort Wayne International Airport and Smith Field Airport. It is governed by a six-member, all volunteer Board of Trustees, appointed by the Mayor of Fort Wayne and the Allen County Commissioners to four-year terms. The Board has ultimate financial and policy making responsibility for the Airport Authority. Current members include: Richard B. (Barry) Sturges, Jr., Gregg C. Sengstack, Timothy J. Haffner, Jerome F. (Jerry) Henry, Kimberly M. Wagner and Réna Bradley.