DIA CEO nominee Phil Washington faces scrutiny over background

Phil Washington’s resume stands out for a career of impressive accomplishments in the U.S. Army and in the transportation sector, but also because of what’s missing: Any previous jobs in airports or the aviation industry.

As he awaits the Denver City Council’s approval to become the next CEO of Denver International Airport, his lack of direct experience is rare among the top leaders of the nation’s 20 busiest airports — even if Washington brings a robust national profile in other parts of the transportation world, along with far-reaching connections.

Recent airport leaders in Miami and Chicago have come from city administrative or legal backgrounds, a Denver Post review found. Otherwise, the ranks of large airport managers are chock-a-block with aviation veterans and people who gained experience at airports before taking charge.

Washington and Mayor Michael Hancock, who tabbed him for the job, say his nearly 21 years in public transportation management in Los Angeles and Denver — much of it at the Regional Transportation District, including as CEO — have prepared him well to run DIA. It’s typically the fifth-busiest airport in the country. Last year, amid a pandemic upheaval in air travel, it rose to third in passenger traffic domestically and seventh in the world.

Some scrutiny from council members, who will question Washington at a committee hearing Wednesday, has centered on whether Washington brings the right experience. He’s also faced questions recently about a self-described whistleblower’s claims of corruption, cronyism and improper contracting at L.A. Metro.

Washington and public officials in L.A. have dismissed those as unfounded charges, lodged by an employee with an ax to grind and caught in a swirl of local politics. But the news has included the revelation that county sheriff’s deputies this year served search warrants seeking documents and emails, including from Washington. He says he’s had no indication that he is under investigation.

Councilwoman Amanda Sawyer said the council’s new appointment consent authority, approved by city voters last fall, requires a focus on “the ability to do the job.”

“Is he qualified to do this job? Does he have the expertise to do this job? Are the accusations in California going to get in the way of his ability to do this job?” Sawyer said. “Those are the kinds of questions I think you’ll see on Wednesday.”

While Sawyer is among members who say they consider Washington an excellent candidate, given his Denver history and military career, others are still sorting through his background.

He would replace Kim Day, who is set to retire in mid-July after 13 years at the helm. Before joining DIA, she was an architect and consultant, including on aviation projects, and had directed Los Angeles World Airports.

Washington, 63, served more than two decades in the Army before he began working for RTD. He just finished six years as CEO of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, more commonly called L.A. Metro, this spring. He’s already living back in metro Denver, where his son works for RTD as a commuter rail field supervisor.

In an interview, he said he brings experience from work in multiple modes of transportation, from public transit and highway improvements to discussions about freight movement and aviation. Last year, he led now-President Joe Biden’s transition team for transportation issues.

“I interacted with the (Federal Aviation Administration) and airports around the country in evaluating the state of the U.S. Department of Transportation,” Washington said.

He also pointed to his experience in launching large construction projects, at RTD and L.A. Metro, as something he would draw on immediately. DIA has a $3.5 billion capital program underway, including several gate additions and a major terminal renovation that has weathered cost overruns, delays and scale-backs.

“The first thing is we’ve got to move … these projects forward,” Washington said of DIA’s construction initiatives, suggesting his outside perspective would be an asset. “I think I bring that, along with the ability to engage and understand aviation very quickly.”

L.A. Metro’s board members, including Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, have praised him for strong leadership during a time of rapid system expansion, similar to his reputation at RTD.

“There was an expectation that he was someone who could take us to the next level in terms of vision and execution, and he didn’t fail us,” said Jacquelyn Dupont-Walker, a south L.A. community and economic development advocate who’s the only non-elected official serving on L.A. Metro’s board.

About his potential DIA job, she said: “I think he comes back (to Denver) with a perspective of transportation that’s different than when he was there before, and I think with a level of respect in the field of transportation that will help Denver probably acquire a good deal more resources.”

Familiar with city’s workings

Industry experts told The Post that leaders with less-common backgrounds can make strong airport leaders. Even if they’re new to the particularities of overseeing an airport, other skills translate well and deputies can handle the day-to-day functions, said Joseph Schwieterman, a professor at the DePaul University School of Public Service who specializes in the transportation sector.

“First, having a resume that’s deep with Denver area governmental experience is a major plus,” he said. “In some ways, procurement experience (with contracts) or a procurement background can be almost as important as an aviation background, given how complex airports have become.”

For Washington, he said, “I think the challenge will be learning on the spot in a swirling, post-COVID environment. Decisions may not come easily compared to someone who’s spent a lifetime around airports.”

DIA has been down this road before. In 1998, Mayor Wellington Webb, who was undecided on whether to seek a third term a year later, appointed his public works manager, Bruce Baumgartner, to run DIA as a stopgap.

His lack of airport experience drew criticism, but Baumgartner ended up staying in the job for five years. Among those initially skeptical was Mike Boyd, an Evergreen-based aviation consultant, but he came to sing Baumgartner’s praises as a competent, calm leader who focused on improving the traveler’s experience in the airport.

“As far as the new guy, if he has the skills to be able to manage people and do a good job, he’ll do fine,” Boyd said of Washington.

Hancock was among the people around the country whom Washington said he kept apprised of his plan to leave L.A. Metro when his contract was up. Earlier this year, when Hancock learned Day was planning to retire — well before her public announcement in mid-May — he said he reached out to Washington.

Ultimately, the mayor was so confident in Washington as his pick that he opted not to launch a national search for other candidates.

An additional complication: Hancock only has two years left in office and can’t seek another term. The next mayor will be free to make new appointments, including at DIA, meaning the new CEO is guaranteed only two years.

“I have tremendous respect for Phil and the work he has done — first in the military, at the RTD and also at L.A. Metro,” Hancock said in an interview. “He is as qualified or more qualified as the people I would have found had I done a national search. And I know that from my now almost 20 years of interacting with the aviation world.”

A potential challenge at DIA is that most of the top executive positions directly below the CEO — those in charge of day-to-day functions — have turned over in the last year. Only one of its six executive vice presidents, chief of staff Cristal DeHerrera, was in the job before this year, and DIA confirmed that two of those positions are currently vacant — chief commercial officer and chief real estate officer.

Day recently hired Steve Jaquith, United Airlines’ longtime Denver hub leader until last year, as DIA’s new chief operating officer. He was set to start Wednesday.  

From the Army to public transit

Washington, who grew up in public housing on Chicago’s south side, says he signed up for the Army when he was 17. During 24 years of service, he rose to the top enlisted rank — command sergeant major — in roles that were heavy in administration and coordination, ending with an assignment in the Denver area.

When he retired in 2000, he said then-RTD general manager and CEO Cal Marsella gave him a chance, hiring him as assistant GM for administration.

RTD’s elected board chose Washington to succeed Marsella in 2009 after a national search. He helped get the $5.6 billion-and-counting FasTracks initiative off the ground, including overseeing the redevelopment of Union Station and the building of the first new rail lines.

In 2015, he was lured away by L.A. Metro. He quickly shepherded the nation’s largest-ever transit funding measure to a win at the ballot box in 2016. It’s projected to raise $120 billion over its first four decades, dwarfing FasTracks.

Washington sees the DIA job as an inviting challenge, even if it only lasts two years.

His military background echoes through discussions of his initial priorities for the airport as well as his plans to issue a vision statement for the airport, to compile an “annual work plan” for himself and to ask top airport officials to complete an assessment tool he’s developed himself.

Besides speeding up DIA’s projects, he ticked off several areas he’ll likely focus on, from improving the traveler’s experience to tightening its loose asset management system — the subject of a recent critical city audit — to figuring out why commercial development plans for portions of the airport’s massive footprint haven’t taken off. He also envisions programs aimed at “making sure young people, especially young people of color, understand that they can have a career in aviation,” whether in airport administration or as a security-screening agent.

If the City Council committee advances Washington’s nomination, the full council is expected to vote July 12.

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