After more than 32 years as Stillwater Regional Airport director, Gary Johnson is taking off.
Johnson recently announced he will retire in September of this year, but his last few months on the job won’t be spent planning a big vacation. Instead, he will be busy making sure the transition goes off without a hitch.
“Launching commercial service has created a lot of change for the airport, so I have a long to-do list that I want to see through,“ he said. “With over 80,000 operations and 50,000 commercial passengers annually, our airport is one of Oklahoma’s busiest airports and we have to continually adjust for that growth.”
Johnson’s last few months will be busy focusing on the airport’s master plan and long-term capital improvement projects to ensure the future remains strong for the airport.
“Many of the airport projects involve planning 5, 10, even 20 years out,” Johnson explained. “I want to make sure the airport stays on track, whether it’s anticipating future construction and land use needs or identifying grant and funding opportunities.”
In addition to the airport’s internal needs, Johnson is looking at the needs associated with maintaining commercial air service, the needs of the airport users and most importantly, what the community needs in an airport.
“As the airport evolves, we are looking at our staff and how we approach safety, TSA requirements and customer service. We know that customer service is a priority set by Stillwater City Council and we have kept that our focus,” Johnson said.
Because Johnson, who is Oklahoma’s longest serving airport director, has so much institutional knowledge, Stillwater City Manager Norman McNickle wanted whomever succeeded Johnson to have time to take advantage of that information. Last year, McNickle and Johnson created a succession plan, which involved creating an assistant airport director position.
After a competitive application process, Paul Priegel was selected for that position last September. However, he did not have to travel very far to his new position. Priegel served as a police officer for the City of Stillwater for over a decade.
“Although it sounds like an odd path to take, the transition has really been smooth so far,” Priegel said. “Just like police work, airports function under a large body of regulations with a primary objective of public safety.”
As a police officer, Priegel served as a patrol supervisor and also specialized in accident reconstruction, crisis negotiations and was the founder of the department’s Community Outreach Program.Priegel completed the City of Stillwater’s first Leadership Academy and recently graduated from Leadership Stillwater’s Class 26.
Priegel was active at the airport prior to accepting his position. Priegel served as the department’s law enforcement liaison, working with the airport, TSA and law enforcement agencies to develop and implement the airport’s security plan for the new airline service. He also trains local law enforcement on how to respond to incidents at the airport.
In addition to his vast law enforcement duties, Priegel also earned a Masters in Aviation and Space from Oklahoma State University in 2012 and has since taught for OSU’s Aviation Department in areas of aviation accident investigation, legal and regulatory issues, security and management.
Priegel recently completed his management accreditation process through the American Association of Airport Executives, which is an in-depth curriculum covering finance, administration, airport planning and construction, environmental factors, airport operations, security and community relations.
“I was very happy serving as a police officer and certainly wasn’t looking for a career change, but when the opportunity came up, I knew I had the qualifications needed and decided to apply,” he said. “I went into the process only wanting what was best for the airport and the City, so I was very humbled when the City and airport management selected me.”
While he knows he can’t learn everything Johnson knows, Priegel is working with Johnson to learn all he can before he retires.
“Gary is an institution in and of himself. There are not many people in this industry who have more experience than Gary,” Priegel said. “He seems to know just about everyone in aviation—local, state and federal—and he has been working hard to help me make those connections, too.”
In just a short time, Priegel has jumped on these opportunities, making connections that will undoubtedly be a resource for him throughout his career. Priegel was recently appointed as the northwest regional director for the Oklahoma Airport Operators Association and also serves on the American Association of Airport Executives’ Academic Relations Committee and the U.S. Contract Tower Association Policy Board.
When reflecting upon nearly 50 years in aviation, Johnson’s said his last 32 have been the proudest.
“It has been an incredible opportunity to serve the Stillwater Regional Airport Authority, the mayors and city councilors, city management and the citizens of our community. I am confident the airport leadership is in great hands and Stillwater will continue to grow and prosper. I certainly wish Paul and the airport team the best in the years ahead,” Johnson said.