It's not controversial for a new director to complain that the loss of more than 100 airport employees after Hurricane Katrina has left the staff of 115 at half the size of comparable airports
What was striking about Ahmad's approach at Wednesday's aviation board hearing, however, was his aggressive call for more independent auditing of the board's finances, his admission that the airport lacks a succession plan to deal with 24 pending retirements, and his unnerving warning that the departing passenger fees the airport charges airlines are spiraling out of control.
"Our cost per enplanement is just over $10 (per passenger) compared to the national average of about $6.50," Ahmad said. "Under current projections, it is projected to go as high as $16.54 by 2014. In my opinion, this poses a threat to the retention of current airlines, as well as a threat to growth in (passenger travel) here."
He said the airport he ran in Nashville, which is similar in size to New Orleans, charges only $5 per enplanement. Because New Orleans relies so heavily on discretionary tourist travel, as opposed to business travel, passengers are more concerned about low fares.
With low-fare airlines already dealing with small profit margins, a difference of $10 per passenger can scare many of them away, Ahmad warned.
The airport's finances are healthy. Its net income in the first seven months of 2010 was nearly three times that of the same period in 2009.
But passenger fees are on the rise to help the airport pay for a $755 million modernization plan, much of which must be completed ahead of the Super Bowl hosted by New Orleans in February 2013. That process began last fall with new signs and flat-screen monitors, and continued this year with expanded hours for concessions inside the airport and work starting on a new state-of-the-art rental car facility. The work will culminate in a new Concourse E.
Ahmad's blunt assessment was welcomed by an aviation board filled with holdovers from previous administrations. Only one member out of nine -- Doug Thornton -- is an appointee of new Mayor Mitch Landrieu.
In his first meeting as chairman, Nolan Rollins acknowledged that the airport doesn't look enough like New Orleans. He said a mural of jazz greats in front of Concourse C is an island of local flavor, and "the rest of it is a sore thumb."
Nelita Manego-Ramey, who has served on the board since 1994, said she and other members were kept in the dark about important management issues until Ahmad started shedding light on them.
"We were in a culture before where we were blind to some things," she said. "Now we have a culture of transparency and accountability."
Hanging over all of Ahmad's grand plans, however, is the possibility that the board may choose to privatize management of airport operations. There are five slots available in a Federal Aviation Administration pilot privatization program, and the New Orleans aviation board has a month to tell the FAA if it wants to participate.
With Ahmad bringing a new attitude and focus to in-house operations, it appears unlikely that the board will cut off its new leader's momentum for a model that Rollins and others have major doubts about.
"I haven't seen privatization be successful anywhere in America," Rollins said.