David Gantt, a member of the governing board of the Asheville Regional Airport, returned to Asheville on Tuesday from a five-day trip to an airport-industry conference in Hawaii and defended the trip as a valuable learning experience.
The conference was held at a Maui resort. The airport board initially planned to send four of its members there at a cost of more than $17,000, but one board member announced a last-minute decision not to attend. The spending has stirred outrage among some area residents upset at the board's spending during economic tough times and spurred more questions about the board's budget and policies.
Gantt was greeted upon his return by a group of about 15 protesters, who questioned the spending and demanded accountability. Members of the group held signs that said "Where are my tax dollars, David?" and "Pay for trips from your own pocket."
Gantt addressed the group with a statement, noting the value of the conference, then answered questions from the media.
"You want this airport to succeed. We want this airport to succeed, and the conference I went to was a good one," Gantt said. "I learned a lot."
"I first of all would like you to understand that we get it. Any time there's public money spent, you have a right to know how it's spent and I have an obligation as a public official or a board member to explain where it goes, and I'm going to do that."
Gantt said he talked to officials about airport-security measures, including body scanners, and the potential damage bird strikes can do to aircraft. "I think with what we've learned from talking to the TSA people, from talking to the FAA people, that we can make this a safer airport, and it's very important for us to do that."
Gantt said he talked with FAA officials and other conference-goers about sources of airport funding, noting that the Asheville airport last year received $7.5 million in stimulus cash. And he said that a contact at the conference resulted in the addition of a new flight out of the Asheville airport.
"We will have an announcement soon, due to a contact we made at this convention, that we will have a new hub we will be flying to, and I'm not going to steal the thunder, but that will be coming."
Gantt said issues surrounding the airport's budget and policies regarding trips will be discussed at the board's Friday, Feb. 12 meeting.
Erika Franzi, a member of the Asheville Tea Party, was one of the group of residents who met Gantt upon his return. Franzi held a sign that said, "Character is what you show when no one is looking!" She said the issues surrounding the Hawaii conference require more scrutiny.
"We're all looking. It's very easy to just say, 'I will do this going forward. We will make these decisions going forward.' Talk is cheap. Three tickets to Hawaii is not," Franiz said. "And like we said before, there's so much going on here. We just want them to know we're looking."
Go to www.mountainx.com to see video clips of Gantt talking about the Hawaii conference.