In three decades of leading the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, Jeff Hamiel has seen all sorts of drama. Bankruptcies. Strikes. Deregulation. Bailouts. Mergers. Recessions. Then, on that fateful September day in 2001, a terror attack that forever changed aviation.
Hamiel, 69, quietly steered the airport through that tumult as executive director of the Metropolitan Airports Commission (MAC), the body that oversees its operations. He retires Monday — 39 years to the day that he began with the MAC.
Hamiel, a licensed pilot and Air Force veteran, leaves as MSP embarks on a $2.5 billion expansion, including updated ticketing and baggage claim areas, more parking and a new hotel. His retirement also comes as condensed security checkpoints in the main terminal have caused much worry with the summer travel season approaching. And noise complaints from the airport’s neighbors persist.
“Most people in my career field last about eight years,” Hamiel said recently. “Then they have to move on because of politics, or a failed or mishandled construction project, controversy within the staff, or they just time out.”
In contrast, the St. Paul native notes, “I’m the only guy I know of in the United States who runs an airport in his own hometown. I love the state of Minnesota. People keep asking when I retire where I’m going to live. I say, ‘Mendota Heights!’ ”
The MAC has hired another native Minnesotan, Brian Ryks, to replace Hamiel. “I’m an old, gray-haired rumbly guy,” Hamiel said. “Change is good.”
A St. Paul native
Hamiel graduated from Johnson High School on the East Side of St. Paul, where he ran track, served on the student council and debate teams, and was class president his senior year. After graduating from the University of Minnesota-Duluth, he enlisted in the Air Force and remained on active duty for seven years.
Hamiel hoped to fly for an airline, but jobs were scarce in the late 1970s. After responding to a want ad in a trade magazine, he was hired as the MAC’s manager of noise abatement and environmental affairs. He would rise to become executive director in 1985.
The MAC operates MSP, the nation’s 16th-largest airport, and six “reliever” airports. It has annual revenue of $330 million, serves 36 million passengers a year and employs nearly 600. It is funded by fees paid by airport users.
Because MSP is in a dense urban area, its relationship with neighbors has been tenuous. Hamiel brokered relationships with well-organized noise opponents, and he was involved in more than $500 million in noise-proofing of 18,000 homes and 18 schools in south Minneapolis and beyond.
“It was a very controversial program,” he said. “No other large airport was doing what we were doing. People in the industry said, ‘Why are you doing this? Just ignore them.’ But this is not a neighborhood you can ignore.”
Jim Spensley, president of the South Metro Airport Action Council, said he and Hamiel are “adversaries, but not enemies. We have several long-lasting disagreements about noise and airport operations.”
When asked if he’s ever seen the normally cool and collected Hamiel angry, MAC Chairman Dan Boivin said, “No, but I’ve seen him get quiet.”
While at the MAC, Hamiel was also a member of the U.S. Air Force Reserve, for which he flew humanitarian missions around the world for 21 years.
At the same time, the airline industry adjusted to deregulation — where government controls were removed from airline fares and routes beginning in 1978.
The MAC has been criticized for permitting Northwest Airlines, and later Delta Air Lines, to dominate at MSP. Hamiel says strides have been made in the past decade with the entry of Southwest Airlines, Spirit Airlines and others. The only airline of note missing now is JetBlue, and Hamiel says “we’ve been talking to them for the past six years.”
“Jeff knows what’s good for the airport and the community, but you have to have a good partnership with the airlines,” said Bill Lentsch, a senior vice president at Delta. “We have a level of confidence and trust in each other, something that’s unique in Minneapolis.”
Northwest Airlines’ influence resurfaced as an issue in the early 1990s when the Eagan-based carrier asked the MAC for a $500 million loan. Hamiel says he was initially shocked at the request: “Don’t blink. Don’t nod. Just say, ‘Thank you very much, we’ll get back to you.’ ”
Ultimately, the MAC lent Northwest $309 million in a controversial $761 million package approved by the Legislature that involved often-toxic public hearings. One of the most vociferous critics was Gov. Mark Dayton, then state auditor.
Last week, Dayton thanked Hamiel for “his exceptional service to our state.”
Former Federal Reserve official Art Rolnick, a critic of the Northwest deal, said, “Jeff had a job to do. I was coming at it from a public policy point of view. It’s bad government policy.” Later, he said, the two became friends.
Perhaps the most emotionally wrenching event during Hamiel’s tenure was the Sept. 11 attacks, which occurred while he was leading a conference of airport managers in Montreal. He secured the lone rental car available and furiously drove home — where dozens of airplanes were grounded at MSP.
“It was the first time that people put themselves on an airplane and intentionally killed themselves,” he said. “They weren’t doing it for money, or the freedom to go someplace. We’ve been living with this ever since.”
Tension over security lines
The relationship between the MAC and the Transportation Security Administration grew tense this spring when the consolidation of security checkpoints in Terminal 1 resulted in long lines and testy fliers. Hamiel says the situation was “a collision of all sorts of factors that we all should have seen coming and didn’t.” Wait times have been reduced since, but the summer travel season will test the system.
Hamiel plans to spend retirement with his eight, “soon to be nine,” grandchildren, travel and fiddle about the house (which he built).
“I can remember the day I drove into the airport, and when I drive out, I can actually say we got some things done that were good for the community and good for the airport,” he said. “But that’s just a reflection of the community as a whole. That’s just Minnesota.”