New Tulsa International Airport CEO Mark VanLoh said Wednesday he believes the city can get direct flights to places like Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York, but it will take work. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier

Who grows up wanting to run an airport?

Mark VanLoh, that’s who. When he was a kid in Sioux Falls, S.D., his parents took him and his sister to see the movie “Airport.”

“Burt Lancaster was the airport director. Dean Martin was a pilot. There was a guy with a bomb on the plane, and George Kennedy was in an airplane stuck in the snow,” VanLoh said. “It was just a fantastic story, and I told my dad after the show … I said, ‘That’s what I want to do.’”

Don’t forget the name. Wednesday was VanLoh’s third day as CEO of Tulsa International Airport and R.L. Jones Jr. Airport. So every time someone heads to the airport, VanLoh will be the guy ultimately responsible for making sure the experience is a good one.

What might be the most telling quality of the man — professionally, at least — is that he seems to relish that responsibility.

“When inexperienced travelers walk through the door of a terminal, they just sometimes lose their way, they don’t read signs, they wander around,” VanLoh said. “There is so much stress to travel today. Security just scares the hell out of them.

“So you have to make it relaxed, convenient and friendly.”

VanLoh, 56, comes to Tulsa by way of Kansas City, where he ran Kansas City International Airport. And ran it well.

From 2007-2010, the airport was ranked No. 1 in JD Powers’ customer satisfaction survey for medium hub airports.

VanLoh’s looking to create the same customer experience in Tulsa. He plans to continue the airport’s work to improve its concessions with the broader goal of making the airport a place people don’t actually mind spending time in. Because sometimes there is nowhere else to go.

“Before, people just wanted to get on the planes and go — get me out of here, or let me come in and get my car and go,” VanLoh said. “But anymore, because of security, they want you to come earlier to get through the checkpoint, so we have all those passengers who are secured with nothing to do, and I want them to be able to have choices.”

Visitors to the airport can expect to see other changes to the facility. One was completed late Tuesday night, when airport staff finished moving all of the rental cars from the south half of the lower level of the garage to the north half of the terminal level, right across the street from the terminal building.

“You can walk on the same level from your gate, through the exit, right into the rental car facility, into the garage. You’re done,” VanLoh said. “It’s unbelievably convenient, and people are going to love it.”

Another change involves relocating the 13-foot-by-56-foot oil mural near the terminal exit so as to give visitors — especially first-time visitors — a clear view out of the airport and into the city.

“You (will) know you are in Tulsa. It will be well lit and it’s welcoming,” VanLoh said. “All of the car rental places are there. It’s just a grand gathering place that is going to be really aesthetically pleasing right off the bat.”

At the end of the day, however, airports are about coming and going. And right now, Tulsa International Airport provides direct service to 17 cities. Los Angeles, San Francisco, Baltimore and New York are not among them – at least not on a daily basis.

VanLoh believes they should be, and could be. To make a direct flight financial worthwhile for an airline, a city needs to show it can put at least 100 people a day on the plane, VanLoh said. Tulsa could produce those numbers for Los Angeles, San Francisco, Baltimore the New York area, he believes, but that doesn’t mean it will get direct flights to those destinations. It takes more than that.

VanLoh said the airport must build relationships with the airlines, prove that it has the passengers to fill their planes and sell and sell the city itself. Then you might get an airline to listen.

“And if we don’t have enough people, we have to figure out a way to stimulate the market,” he said. “It’s a tough sell sometimes, but you go in armed to the teeth proving your case to these airlines. Sometimes it takes a year, sometimes it takes several years to get that new flight.”

Not all of VanLoh’s work will be done at the airport terminal. The airport property comprises thousands of acres, and about 750 of them are sitting empty. Filling that land with businesses that create jobs and add to the tax base is another big piece of his job.

VanLoh said he’s open to talking to any business that would be interested in the site. And he’s not going to wait around for someone to knock on his door.

“One of my goals is to get myself appointed, assigned to local boards who can help us, and we can help them,” he said. “The Chamber of Commerce, the economic development agencies. We all have to work together, because when site selectors come to Tulsa about moving a company here … they always ask about the airport. It’s always a top-five question. So we need to be at those meetings.”

Mayor G.T. Bynum, who sits on the Tulsa Airports Improvement Trust that hired VanLoh, said he was impressed by the economic development work VanLoh did around Kansas City International Airport.

“The big thing for me is that we develop those revenue sources to enable Tulsa to get more direct flights here,” Bynum said. “I think that is a huge need for us from an economic development standpoint.”

How would developing airport trust land around the airport make it easier to get direct flights? It works this way: If the airport trust can generate non-airport revenue, that revenue can be used to augment airport revenues and help the airport reduce the fees it charges airlines to use its facilities.

Jeff Stava, chairman of TAIT, described VanLoh as a high-energy person who understands the need for a vision and has the skills and experience to implement it.

“We have the facilities,” Stava said. “So we need someone who has strong connections with the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration), contacts with the major air carriers and the ability to conceptualize and really make an industrial park.

“He has a track record of doing these things in Kansas City, and before that, in Cleveland.”

Bynum said he was also impressed with VanLoh’s enthusiasm for the city.

“Which you want in someone who is really going to be a global ambassador for the city,” the mayor said.

Mark VanLoh, 56, is in his first week as the new CEO of Tulsa International Airport. He spoke with The Frontier on Wednesday morning at the airport. DYLAN GOFORTH/The Frontier

After growing up in Sioux Falls, VanLoh joined the Army, where he earned his pilot’s license in Fort Hood, Texas. Then it was off to school at Minnesota State University, followed by nearly three decades in the airport management business.

Now he’s landed in Tulsa, a smaller city than Kansas City, with a smaller airport. In Kansas City, VanLoh oversaw 550 employees with an annual budget of $136 million. In Tulsa, he’s in charge of about 140 employees and an annual budget of $45 million.

What might look like a step down is anything but, VanLoh said. Kansas City International Airport is run by the city, which meant VanLoh had to deal with the usual politics and bureaucracy of government. That was not always conducive to running the airport.

In Tulsa, his boss is the five-member trust.

“We can operate like a business,” VanLoh said. “We’re not being told by politicians to either hire their nephew or don’t agree to this contract or hire this contractor because there is a relationship. … We can make decisions in a day here.”

VanLoh chose Tulsa for personal reasons, too. He and his wife, Colleen VanLoh, consider themselves Midwesterners and wanted to stay in the Midwest. Tulsa’s quality of life and cost of living were strong selling points as well. But what seems to have sealed the deal is the people of Tulsa.

VanLoh said everywhere he and his wife go around town, they are welcomed warmly. Even at the airport, where he is the new boss.

“After seeing how this place was run and meeting the staff and how professional they are and how welcoming and warm, this was just an easy decision, it really was,” he said.

VanLoh was hired to replace Jeff Mulder, who took a similar position at a larger airport. He was one of more than 30 people to apply for the job and will be paid approximately $200,000 a year.

Clarification: An earlier version of this story stated that Tulsa International Airport officials would like to offer direct flights to Los Angeles, San Francisco, Baltimore and New York. The airport offers direct flights to Los Angeles and Baltimore, but not on a daily basis. Airport officials say they would like to offer daily direct flights to all four cities. This story has been updated to reflect the clarification.