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Roof celebrates 40 years as Barkley airport manager

BY LAUREN P. DUNCANlduncan@paducahsun.com

Over the past four decades, the aviation industry has seen substantial changes. Through it all, Richard Roof, Barkley Regional Airport manager, has been there to witness it.

Roof recently celebrated his 40-year anniversary as a manager at the airport. At age 30, he took the job of assistant manager on July 1, 1974, and two months later, he took over as manager when former airport manager Ben Ashby retired.

Roof first received his pilot's license on July 17, 1962. He remembers it like it was yesterday. He took the commercial pilot's written exam, and then received a "pink slip" which served as a temporary license. That night, he was flying. During college, Roof carried overnight mail between Lexington, Huntington and Louisville.

Forty years later, Barkley Regional Airport has a $30 million impact on the economy, Roof said, and the airport's sole airliner, SkyWest, is looking to have its best year yet at the airport.

Roof credited the airport's board and leaders' solid relationship with the FAA as reasons why his long tenure has brought positive results for the airport.

Additionally, he said staff members, himself included, "wear a lot of hats," which has also proven helpful to the airport's operation. When he's not handling managerial duties, you can find him doing a number of different jobs, such as snowplowing the 80 acres of pavement.

"I can do 24 hours on a snowplow and not even be aware of it," he said.

The extra work hasn't diminished Roof's love for what he does. He's not planning on retiring anytime soon.

"It's just been a fantastic experience," he said. "I'm really enjoying the job. It's something you get excited about, to face the challenges every day."

Local leaders gathered for a surprise reception on July 1 to celebrate Roof's service. He was awarded the Mayor's Award of Merit from Paducah Mayor Gayle Kaler and was named a Kentucky Colonel by State Rep. Gerald Watkins.

The airport's driveway will be named Richard Roof Drive in recognition of his service.

A changing industry

Since 1974, Roof has led the airport through airline changes, expansions and changing regulations from the federal government.

Four years into his time as manager, a major change came to the aviation industry: The Airline Deregulation Act of 1978. It lifted federal control over airline services with the exception of the FAA, which still governed safety guidelines. As a result, the market opened up and the industry began to change.

Before the Deregulation Act, airlines established hubs at larger airports in order to bring in as many customers as they could. A few of those hubs included St. Louis, Memphis, Nashville and Cincinnati, which were Barkley Regional Airport's major locations serviced by its local carriers. 

Going into 1978, Roof said Barkley Regional Airport had 13 local service carriers. But the 1980s brought challenges as the Deregulation Act led to changes in major airlines and limiting of regional carriers, which weren't always profitable after the federal change.

Then, in the 1990s, major airliners began to merge, which has left the market with its three remaining "legacy" airlines today:  American, Delta and United. Southwest has also emerged as a major airliner, Roof said.

What happened between the late 1970s and late 1990s was a decline in hubs, as airlines began to realize they could eliminate several hundred flights a day in one city because they already had service in other cities. St. Louis, Memphis, Nashville and Cincinnati have all seen reductions in flights, or have been "de-hubbed," as Roof put it, in some form.

"We depended on those four locations," he said. "Ever since 1946 those had been our gateway cities. They're not gateway cities anymore."

But Barkley Regional Airport has survived the changes.

SkyWest started services at the airport in 2010 and made a significant impact, Roof explained, as it serves directly into Chicago O'Hare. Prior to SkyWest, Mesaba Airlines served Barkley with 34-seat turboprop planes. With SkyWest came 50-seat jets. Flights that can carry 50 passengers come to and from the Paducah-area airport daily, while other regional airports have had to downsize to 19-seat turboprop planes.

Barkley Regional Airport thus sees a lot of customers from an 80-mile perimeter, which stretches north to Jackson and Williamson counties in Illinois and south into Tennessee.

While local residents may look at a regional airport as a convenience for traveling out of the area, Roof pointed out Barkley's significant role in bringing people into western Kentucky.

"Most people tend to think of the air service as a way to get out of town," he said. "Very seldom do they think: is my community accessible from somewhere else? One result is we're beginning to see a lot of international traffic here."

Roof said between 8 to 10 percent of ticket flow is international, which he described as very good. Meanwhile, he said, SkyWest recently logged its 74th consecutive quarterly dividend.

Contact Lauren Duncan, a Paducah Sun staff writer, at 270-575-8692 or follow @laurenpduncan on Twitter.

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