They say “timing is everything” but Scotty Malta’s timing could not have been worse.
In late February of this year, Malta moved from California to Southern Pines to assume his duties as the new manager at the Moore County Airport. Malta started at his new post on March 9. The next week Gov. Roy Cooper issued a state-wide “stay at home” order, and airplanes stopped flying.
“It’s been a tough couple of months,” Malta admitted with a smile, interviewed from his apartment near the airport. “I was working at my new desk for one week and have had to work from home ever since.”
Any new job has challenges, but with more than 40 years of hands-on experience in aviation and managing airports, Malta is comfortable with the vocabulary, procedures and problems of airports. His last job was managing the giant Castle Airport in California for 18 years. He has a master’s degree in aviation management and has served on the governing boards of four different aviation associations.
But Malta’s COVID-19 dilemmas were unprecedented. Working with his team, Malta developed new operational procedures for the airport. These include the requirement that everyone wear masks and new cleaning protocols.
The airport staff was divided into two isolated teams to eliminate the chance of one team cross-contaminating the other, which has enabled crucial aeronautical services to be sustained. The terminal building has been locked-down to all but transient passengers and crew. The Hertz rental car desk at the airport also has modified its procedures based on guidance from Malta and the airport team. So far, no employee or customer has been infected with the virus.
One of the early decisions with which Malta struggled was the fate of the annual Festival D’Avion airshow. The popular event is now in its third year and has expanded every year. Working with Tarheels Communications, the show organizer, Malta made an early but painful recommendation that the show be postponed. That was prescient because since that time almost every airshow in the country has been postponed as well.
Another challenge stems from the fact that at Castle Airport, Malta did not have direct passenger-service responsibilities. This contrasts dramatically with the situation at Moore County Airport where customer service — keeping airplane owners happy and satisfying visiting dignitaries arriving on their private jets — is the most essential part of his new job. “Not only am I dealing with a larger staff but I also am really shaping the customer service experience for our clients,” he said. “We want to delight all our customers, even during a pandemic.”
Day-to-day management has been “a bit of a struggle” because everything is so different. He is managing subordinates who only have met him once or twice. He’s making deals with customers he’s never seen. “I go to the airport every couple of days and chat with the staff on duty,” he said. “But they don’t really know me yet, and I don’t know them. We’re working hard to become a team.”
Since Malta is new to the area, he had ambitions to get out of the airport and meet local leaders, the county commissioners, plus FAA and state aviation officials. “I really believe in the benefits of face-to-face meetings, but that’s just been impossible.” Malta compensates with phone calls and ZOOM conferences. Airport Authority meetings are managed on Webex.
The airport also is struggling with a sharp decline in revenue. Spring is the busy season in the Sandhills but this year the ramp has been nearly devoid of visiting jets. Malta has cut spending to keep the airport economically strong but everything is contingent on the re-opening of the economy. “Just like every other business in the state, the longer the COVID thing drags on, the worse it’s going to be for everybody,” Malta said.
On the personal level, he also has been finding his way around the area, looking for a church, a barber shop, a dentist and all the other new relationships one needs to build when moving to a new town. At the end of each day, he unwinds on the balcony of his apartment watching the planes arriving at his airport.
Despite the turmoil, Malta feels the COVID-19 crisis is just a speed bump for the Moore County Airport. The airport is finalizing a new Master Plan. A large hangar is under construction, a new airplane maintenance shop is opening in July, an airport restaurant is under consideration, and the airport has received a grant to convert the old-style runway lights to energy-efficient LEDs which will save money and protect the environment.
“This airport is doing great,” Malta said. “Once people begin traveling again, this airport is going to contribute more to the local economy than anybody thought possible.”