Gateway to Coastal Carolina

11 Sep 2014

Wilmington International Airport is a vibrant community partner with big plans for the future.

By Catherine Kimrey Breeden   Photos by Jennifer Simpson

“Welcome to SouthEastern North Carolina,” emblazoned above the main terminal doors, is the friendly greeting conveyed to arriving passengers at the Wilmington International Airport. More commonly known to travelers by its call letters ILM, the fourth largest airport in the Tar Heel State in terms of passengers served is a gateway to coastal North Carolina and all that it offers in the way of lifestyle, business opportunity, and recreation.

One need only spot the many rocking chairs gracing the terminal to know that a healthy dose of Southern hospitality awaits. Two homey lounge areas, boasting leather sofas, comfortable wing chairs, and ambient lighting provide a place for quiet conversation or restful waiting should those be in order. And while these thoughtfully placed accommodations are much appreciated when the occasion demands, the primary purpose of any airport is to keep people and goods moving. ILM excels in that regard as well.

With daily non-stop flights to four major cities (Charlotte, Atlanta, New York, and Philadelphia) by the commercial carriers US Airways/American Airlines and Delta—and occasional non-stop flights to the nation’s capital—travelers can jet from Wilmington to anywhere in the U.S. mainland in a matter of hours. ILM served 800,000 passengers in 2013, and a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Terminal Capacity Study anticipates that number will double in 20 years.

ILM is designated as an international airport because it serves as a point of entry for persons arriving from abroad on private or corporate aircraft. Those passengers—about 10,000 per year—clear customs at a U.S. Customs and Border Patrol inspection station that is rated # 2 in the country by the pilots who fly in and out of Wilmington. A state-of-the-art facility, it was first in the country to meet new Transportation Security Administration standards post 9-11; and it is a tangible manifestation of ILM Director Jon W. Rosborough’s emphasis on customer service. 

Rosborough, who is stepping down in December, shepherded ILM into the vibrant community partner that it is today. He is enthusiastic about the airport’s future, and rightfully so. Under his leadership—which focuses on teamwork and on providing the very best of everything for airport patrons, whether convenience of parking, ease of security clearance, or cleanliness—he has positioned the airport to become a key economic driver of the local economy. A recent Aviation Economic Impact Study, prepared by North Carolina State University’s researchers at the Institute for Transportation Research and Education, estimates that ILM brings $641 million per year of economic impact to the area, including direct, indirect, and induced economic activity. 

When Rosborough arrived at the airport in 1998, he brought skills that had served him well as a U.S. Army Officer and as a hospital administrator. Reflecting back on his tenure as Director, Rosborough noted three areas that he had targeted early-on for improvement: (1) to lower prices--which he described as “outrageous” at the time—and provide more competitive prices on commercial flights; (2) to provide all jet service—instead of that available using the older and substandard aircraft that was then common—to improve the experience for customers; and (3) to expand non-stop service to top destinations.

Rosborough has achieved these goals, and many more. He deflects credit away from himself and attributes much of the success to a very efficient and competent staff of 46 people who keep the airport running 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. He notes that everyone works together for the common good, and that the attrition rate is low. 

When Rosborough retires at the end of December, management of the airport will transition to Julie A. Wilsey, who will step up from the position of Deputy Director. She was selected to lead ILM into the future after an extensive nationwide search by the New Hanover County Airport Authority, the airport’s governing body. Members are appointed by the New Hanover County Commissioners and serve four-year terms. 

Tom Barber, the Authority’s immediate-past Chairman who oversaw the search, is emphatic that Wilsey was selected on merit, and not because she was already in place. “Julie Wilsey was the best candidate of the 40 some who applied,” Barber said. “And the vote to select her was unanimous.”

Wilsey will have her work cut out for her as she takes over as Director of ILM, and she is eager and ready to tackle the job. A civil engineer who graduated from the United States Military Academy at West Point, Wilsey served as a Captain in the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers and has 15 years’ experience in aviation management. She was named Wilma magazine’s 2013 “Woman to Watch” in the category of Public Service.

Wilmington will be watching as Wilsey undertakes management of ILM’s 1,800-acre campus with an annual operating budget of $7.4 million. While members of the general public most often think of the commercial aviation component when the airport comes to mind, ILM is considerably more complex. The general aviation and fixed base operations as well as the expanding business park play vital roles in the airport’s success.

On Wilsey’s agenda: implementation of a master plan that will upgrade the general aviation area and bring more tenants into the business park, thereby diversifying the revenue stream that sustains the airport’s operations. She will also be busy positioning ILM to accommodate the anticipated annual passenger count of 1.4 million travelers by 2033. Her major goals in this regard include expanding the terminal to double its current size, which will entail additional retail space, food services, and airline space; and building two small parking decks flanking the terminal. Wilsey also hopes to extend one of the runways to bring in larger aircraft, but that is dependent upon FAA approval. 

Come January, that matter and all others involving FAA will begin to recede from Jon Rosborough’s priority list as he launches into a well-earned retirement. His immediate plans include exploring the United States and Canada with his wife Carol, spending time with his grandchildren, and cruising the local waters in his motor yacht “R Oasis.” He will be able to relax, knowing that he left ILM in capable hands.

“I see ILM’s future as very bright and challenging,” Rosborough says. “Julie Wilsey is a very competent leader, and she is very approachable, which you have to be as Director. People will perceive her as ‘The Airport.’ She will do a fantastic job and carry the airport to the next level of quality service.”

As for which of Rosborough’s leadership qualities she most hopes to emulate as Director, Wilsey is emphatic. “Jon has been an outstanding leader,” she says. “He has developed an outstanding
team of aviation professionals. He demands a high bar of customer service and excellence, and has always emphasized team work as a way to accomplish our goals.”

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