Special Reports

Interim airport chief does it his way

Alfred Testa Jr., tapped to temporarily preside over the embattled Blue Grass Airport, has a reputation for doing things his way. In one case, that led to his firing, complete with a plainclothes police escort out the door of the Philadelphia airport.

Testa, though, isn't embarrassed by the dramatic departure, and says he welcomed the firing after being asked to award an advertising contract to a politically connected firm.

"Everyone I know in the industry told me not to take the job" in Philadelphia, Testa said Wednesday. "I wear that firing like a badge of honor."

Testa, 67, comes to Lexington as part of Jacobs Consultancy, an international firm hired this week by the airport board to help run Blue Grass after four of its top five directors resigned amid questions about lavish spending.

Testa spent a total of 15 years as the head of East Coast airports. He was director of what's now called the Manchester Boston Regional Airport in New Hampshire from 1991 to 1999 before taking the top job at Philadelphia International Airport for a year. His last full-time director's job was as head of the Harrisburg International Airport in Pennsylvania, a position he held from 2001 until retiring in 2006.

Those who know Testa, a Rhode Island native with a law degree from Suffolk Law School in Boston, say he relishes challenges.

"If you need someone to come in and solve a problem, he's the right guy," said Sean Thomas, a longtime aide in the Manchester, N.H., mayor's office.

But, in the rough-and-tumble political climate of Philadelphia, Testa's feisty nature led to a messy divorce from his job.

Former Mayor Ed Rendell hired him to take over the airport in April 1999, just eight months before John Street replaced Rendell as mayor. Testa wanted a five-year contract, but Rendell could promise just a year at a time.

"The lawyer in me said get it in writing," Testa said. "The ego in me said take it because I wanted to show I could do the job in a big city, too."

Testa didn't mesh well with the new mayor. In February 2000, he publicly criticized the city's policy of having the parking authority oversee airport lots, according to court documents.

Two weeks later, Street's chief of staff summoned Testa to ask for his resignation.

Testa said the request also came after he refused to award an advertising contract to a politically connected firm that wasn't the low bidder — something he said the FBI is still investigating.

Testa asked for a severance package and a chance to discuss it with his wife. When Street's top aide, Stephanie Franklin-Suber, didn't hear back the next day, she called Testa to ask whether she'd get his resignation.

"And I said, 'No you're not. You've got to fire me,'" Testa said.

Hours later, police officers showed up at Testa's airport office to escort him out.

"As I walked out, I jumped up on a chair and explained to everyone that this is how Mayor Street does business and that 'I love you all,'" Testa said.

Street, who now teaches at Temple University, didn't return a message Wednesday.

Testa took a parting shot by suing Franklin-Suber for defamation after she said Testa seemed to be "acting irrationally." The suit was later dismissed.

Building from scratch

As Testa, who now lives in Florida, arrives in Lexington Thursday, he inherits a depleted management staff.

Former director Mike Gobb and three of his lieutenants resigned this month after Herald-Leader articles outlined spending patterns in which directors charged to the airport hundreds of thousands of dollars in travel and expenses, including a $5,080 jaunt to a Texas strip club in 2004.

Only the marketing director remains from the former leadership's top echelon

Twice before, Testa has had to build airport management teams from scratch.

Soon after he arrived in Harrisburg as a consultant, the airport authority fired the British management firm that had been running the airport and named Testa the director.

"That meant they had zero employees besides me," he said.

All but one of the managers Testa then hired remain, confirmed Timothy Tate, board chairman of the Susquehanna Area Regional Airport Authority, which oversees the Harrisburg airport.

Tate praised Testa for implementing "basically a complete makeover" of the airport with a a new management team and a new $240 million terminal.

A decade earlier, when Testa took over the Manchester airport, he also had to assemble a team of directors. Three of the five top officials at the airport now were Testa hires.

Getting the job done

Still, the compensation packages of some of the managers he hired in Manchester later came under scrutiny.

During a review of city vehicle usage in 2004, then Manchester airport director Kevin Dillon notified the city board of aldermen that directors hired during Testa's tenure were allowed to use city cars for personal errands, a perk other city department heads weren't allowed.

An airport manager also wrote to Testa in 1994 that he expected "a new automobile for my business and personal use — similar to a Ford Taurus or Chevrolet Lumina," according to a February 2004 Manchester Union Leader article.

Testa said he didn't recall that memo. He said directors were allowed to take their city-owned cars home with them but not use them for personal reasons.

"My standing rule was that, if you have to go to the dry cleaners, do it on your way home from work," Testa said.

Manchester Alderman William P. Shea said the city found no other issues with airport officials' compensation packages and decided to let those directors continue using their city cars for personal use. The city stopped that practice for future hires.

Shea said Testa left Manchester with a legacy of being efficient and firm, if a bit gruff.

"He does tend to ruffle people's hair, but he gets the job done," Shea said.

Testa said he's already met with some staff at Blue Grass airport to quell uncertainty after a tumultuous two months.

"I also wanted them to know they're not getting some desk jockey who worked at some accounting firm in St. Louis," he said.

Testa said he's not sure how long he'll be in Lexington, but expects the hiring of a permanent director to take three to six months.

While he can come off as brash, the employees will quickly know where they stand with him, said Thomas, the senior policy advisor to Manchester Mayor Frank Guinta.

But, Thomas said, "Fred's bark is worse than his bite."

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