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A conversation with Jesse Romo

  • The Wichita Eagle
  • Published Sunday, July 14, 2013, at 12 a.m.

Growing up, all Jesse Romo ever wanted to do was work in aviation.

“I was born with a passion for aviation,” said Romo, acting director of the Kansas Department of Transportation’s Division of Aviation. “I’m still like a kid. Every time I hear an airplane outside, I run to the window to look at it.”

Romo, 38, leads the state’s aviation division in Topeka with a focus on public-use airports across Kansas.

Kansas has about 139 public-use airports.

“We primarily deal with noncommercial airports in rural communities,” Romo said. “We administer grant programs. We do everything we can to help promote and educate everything related to aviation.”

Romo grew up in Los Angeles and earned his pilot’s license at age 18, flying out of the Santa Monica airport. He also holds instrument and commercial ratings.

Romo graduated with a degree in sociology from UCLA. He spent three years in the retail industry.

In 2001, he was named Tie Department Manager of the Year by the Neckwear Association of America, an award given to only three managers nationwide.

While in New York to receive the award, Romo saw the World Trade Center. So when terrorists struck the towers not long after the trip, Romo decided he wanted to leave California and do something in the aviation industry.

In January 2002, he joined Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla., to pursue a master’s in business administration and an aviation career.

While at Embry-Riddle, Romo served as a graduate assistant at its Center for General Aviation Research and was named Student of the Year in 2003.

While a student, Romo interned at the Burbank Airport Authority in California and moved into a permanent position there after graduation.

In 2006, he came to Kansas to join the Kansas Department of Transportation before being recruited by the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association in Frederick, Md., as director of its Airport Support Network.

For family reasons, Romo returned to Kansas and rejoined KDOT in 2011 as deputy director for airspace and special projects. He became acting director of the division in April.

Romo also is an adjunct instructor at Baker University.

He and his wife, Marisol, a native of Topeka, have two children, Evelyn, 5, and Luke, 4.

You and two others make up a staff of three at the aviation division. How does that compare to other states?

We are the smallest aviation staff in the nation as compared to the number of public-use airports. We’re as efficient as possible with the resources we have. Even at three staff members, we’re a multinational award-winning team. We do quite a bit with what we have.

Kansas has an airport improvement program administered by your division that receives $5million a year. How is that money used?

We have a lot of preservation projects. The state of Kansas airports were in poor condition. The first several years (of the program) were spent getting everybody up to a decent level of pavement conditions. … (Now), it goes for preservation, crack sealing, we do a little bit of taxiway and apron (and other) work.

What’s the program’s goal?

One of the biggest drivers has been to make sure that rural airports are capable of providing air ambulance service (and have the) pavement conditions, runway length and width to do instrument approach procedures so we can fly in in bad weather conditions.

Last year, you had a record number of applications for the funds. How many projects did you have to turn down?

(We received) approximately 140 applications for $50million worth of projects. Every year the program gets more competitive, but we have a grant committee that we convene, and we go through a whole system of scoring to make sure things are aligned with the state system plan. We awarded about 40 projects this year.

What shape are Kansas airports in today?

It’s head and shoulders where they are standing now than where they were in the late ’90s when the program began. … We’ve got really nice airports across the state.

Why is that important?

For us it’s a link to critical services for each of these communities. We see economic shifts from rural to urban populations. Programs like this for airports, not only are they the front door to the community, they help spark economic development. It functions as a business enterprise to help businesses come in.

What else does your office do?

One of the other things we do out of our office is protect airport airspace. We developed a multinational award-winning tool that uses Google Earth and 3-D imagery to display airspace surfaces that the FAA calls “imaginery.” We try to work with developers in the planning stages to avoid conflicts of proposed vertical structures, such as wind turbines, that may have an adverse impact to airports and their respective instrument approach procedures.

Your office and the Kansas Commission on Aerospace Education are sponsoring the first Aviation Expo at the National Center for Aviation Training in September. It’s called “Where the State Capital Meets the Air Capital.” What is your goal?

For a state that’s home to one of only five aviation clusters in the world, we want to kick-start an annual tradition of a trade show and convention and build it out. We’re going to highlight all the things that we do for the state. … It’s geared toward airports, aviation businesses and pilots. … We have some great partners that are coming out to help us. … Everyone is pitching in. We’re doing it on a zero budget. It’s amazing to see it actually come to fruition.

What do you see for your division in the future?

It’s probably more reliance on our state funds to help airports and less funding from the FAA … and maybe a shift of our priority in the programs to economic development.

In your job, you fly all over the state. What do you like best about flying?

It’s one of those things. When you’ve got the bug and you’ve got the passion, it’s a high level of self-satisfaction knowing that you’re flying.

Reach Molly McMillin at 316-269-6708 or mmcmillin@wichitaeagle.com. Follow her on Twitter: @mmcmillin.

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