We might never come to think of planes as we do cars or the skies as we do highways. But Phil Lanier, the new director of Johnston Regional Airport, sees each as curing isolation.
“Without an airport, I think the community would be isolated; if you don’t have a road leading to your home, you’re going to be pretty isolated,” Lanier said. “Without an airport, you really lose the ability to reach out and reach in; you lose the ability to attract job-producing businesses.”
Lanier is taking over for airport director Ray Blackmon, who retired last year after more than a decade on the job. He graduated from N.C. State University in 2005 with a degree in construction engineering and has worked for the N.C. Department of Transportation’s Aviation Division for the past decade.
Lanier is leaving the job of airport project manager for the state’s northeast region, home to 21 airports from Raleigh-Durham International to Ocracoke Island. Lanier has also worked as an airport-development engineer for the DOT, a job that dealt with maintaining runways and aprons, paving asphalt and filling cracks, he said.
His first day in Johnston County will be Jan. 23.
“I was interested in this job mainly because I believe in the airport,” Lanier said. “It’s a strong airport with a strong board. I’ve worked at that airport a few times in the last few years, both in maintenance and capital projects, and have seen firsthand how well run it is.”
Airport board chairman Ken Starling said the needs of Johnston’s airport have changed dramatically since its last director search.
“It used to be just a small-town airport for local pilots to use,” Starling said. “Now it’s more of a tool for businesses and is involved in the growth of the county. As corporations consolidate and get larger, they have multiple sites. One of the main things for them is access, interstates of course, but also airports. Getting in and out is a very key part of the equation for businesses.”
In Lanier, Starling said the airport board saw a high-energy candidate who had experience navigating the competitive waters of state and federal grant funding. He said the job posting drew 46 applications.
“We had a really vast pool to pull from,” Starling said. “It was amazing the quality of applicants we received.
“We tried to score each person, and Phil seemed to reflect our objectives in the future. He was very well versed in the entire general aviation management process, specifically in grants and funding. We believe he’ll be able to help us obtain as many state and federal grants a possible, growing the airport for both general aviation and larger corporate aircraft.”
While he’s a construction engineer by training, Lanier said aviation has been a lifelong passion. He doesn’t have a pilot’s license, but said it’s something he might look into in Johnston County. Mostly the gravity-defying feat of human flight has fascinated him since childhood.
“I’ve just had a lifelong passion for aviation, from a young child building remote-control places, to flying with a few friends in high school and college,” Lanier said. “There’s something about it, a natural draw. ... I’ve been lucky to fly around the state and with different companies. You kind of get into a niche, and before you know it, you develop a great affinity for what you’re doing. From when I first started out, I’ve had the chance to work in about every airport in the state, and that’s fulfilling and that’s rewarding.”
Lanier was reluctant to paint a picture of what Johnston’s airport might look like five years from now, but he’s sure of the airport’s role in Johnston. As the county tries to attract new industries or offer a compelling case for existing ones to expand here, Lanier sees the airport having a hand in that. At the same time, he wants to open the airport to the average citizen of Johnston County, possibly through air shows or open houses attracting cub scouts or high school career days.
“I plan to open up the airport more to the community,” Lanier said. “It’s important to change the public perception and part of that is getting young people into the tradition of aviation.”
On the business side of things, Lanier thinks the airport is in good shape. It’s operating at capacity, with more than 100 planes based at the airport, and more could be on the way, with plans underway to expand the number of T-hangars and add two more corporate hangars.
“The airport is a tremendous economic-development driver; it really is,” Lanier said. “It’s a good problem to have, to be out of hangar space. It allows me to come in and see what the problem is and see if we can find a solution. Every aircraft out there is a wonderful economic engine, both in the tax base, fueling and transportation. Aviation has its place in our transportation infrastructure.”