Coughlin takes over at turbulent time
A long career in aviation leads Coughlin to a new role as head of Pensacola
International Airport during a time of great challenges due to the coronavirus.
His venture into the field of aviation started many years ago.
“I was a little airplane freak when I was a kid,” recalled Matt Coughlin, the new
director of Pensacola International Airport, whose career in all things aviation started
with a nine-year-old’s obsession.
Coughlin began flying as a teenager and soloed at age 16. Despite earning a
bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, he said, “I was always thinking about
being a military pilot.” He especially wanted to be a Navy pilot.
After college, Coughlin went to Navy officer training school, and then flight school at
Naval Air Station Whiting Field, training on T-34C aircraft and TH-57 helicopters. He
earned his wings in 1990 and was sent “right to the fleet,” flying the SH-60B
Coughlin’s Navy career spanned 28 years. His airborne assignments covered
everything from narcotics operations to maritime interdiction in the Persian Gulf, but
throughout his career, he didn’t always get to fly. The Navy likes their officers to learn
and grow and diversify, he said.
“The Navy gave me a lot of great opportunities along the way,” Coughlin said. Here
are a few of them:
He ended his Navy career at the same place it started: Whiting. But this time
Coughlin’s responsibilities would be far greater.
As base commander, Coughlin oversaw operations of three tower-controlled
airports at Whiting Field and 13 satellite airports spread across five counties in two
states, together accounting for 1.5 million flight operations annually. As commander,
Coughlin’s job demanded lots of community outreach, he said, including real estate
acquisitions when bringing in newer, high-performance trainers required expanded
Whiting is an integral part of the community, boasting a $1.12 billion economic
impact on Northwest Florida and Southern Alabama. That impact continues to grow:
Coughlin praised the latest news that the Italian-based company Leonardo plans a
support center for the civilian Whiting Aviation Park after winning a $176 million
contract to supply new Navy training helicopters.
“I think its huge. I’ve flown it; it’s a great helicopter,” he said. “It appears that
Leonardo has made a huge commitment, not only to the Navy but to the community.”
When Coughlin left the Navy and accepted a civilian post in 2015 as assistant
airport director of Pensacola International Airport, he had to hang up his traveling
shoes once and for all. While conceding that the nomadic lifestyle of a career military
officer could be hard on the family, Coughlin said, “I always liked the constant
change, going to the next challenge.”
But there were plenty of challenges ahead in the civilian world, as well. After serving
two-and-a-half years as deputy director of the Pensacola airport, Coughlin left for a
two-year stint as interim county administrator and then assistant county administrator
for Escambia County.
But aviation is where his heart is, and Coughlin returned to the airport deputy
director job last August. In June, upon Dan Flynn’s retirement as airport director,
Coughlin was appointed to lead the airport through arguably its most difficult
circumstances in history: The pandemic.
“Even though we are a department of the City of Pensacola, we’re a separate
business entity,” Coughlin explained. “At the end of the day, our expenditures have
to equal revenues.” That’s been pretty hard to do since last spring when travel
screeched to a halt.
“When your business is passengers flowing through the airport and that business
drops 95 percent, it’s something this industry has never seen before,” Coughlin said.
“In early April, we were down literally 95 percent from a year ago,” he said, noting,
however, that 2019 had been a record year. As of mid-July, passenger traffic was, at
least, “trending in the right direction,” down 55 percent from the same period last
Despite the dramatic drop in passengers, the airport has been able to balance the
books thanks to an infusion of federal relief dollars and careful budget cuts.
“We’re doing okay, actually,” Coughlin said.
“We’ve gotten help from the federal government in the form of the CARES Act. We
received over $11 million in CARES Act moneys, but we’ve had to cut a lot of
projects, a lot of our operational and maintenance expenses. We have to be very
careful about that,” he added. “We still have to maintain all our safety standards at
the same time. And we do get inspected time to time by the FAA.”
The airport complex is cautiously moving forward on as many fronts as possible.
The ST Aerospace MRO campus at the airport is “progressing” Coughlin said. “One
hangar has been built and is in use. We’re in the design phase of the second
hangar. As design for the second hangar evolves to the construction phase, we will
begin the same process for the third and fourth hangars simultaneously, along with
an administrative building.”
At this point, there are no changes to the airport’s overall master plan. “We’re still
forging ahead with our master plan,” Coughlin said. “We’ve got a great plan. We’ve
had to adjust course, obviously.”
The question of how long it will be before Pensacola and other U.S. airports can
recover to pre-pandemic levels looms large. Delta, United, American, Southwest,
Frontier, and regional airline Silver Airways are still stable and serving Pensacola.
But, Coughlin added, “There’s a lot that remains to be seen in the industry, itself.”
Given the daily bad news about recent and record-breaking spikes in COVID-19
cases, especially in the Sunbelt states along the Gulf Coast aviation corridor, airport
officials like Coughlin aren’t expecting a quick turnaround.
“Enplanements dropped in the Great Recession and didn’t recover until eight years
later,” he said. “COVID already did triple the damage in a third of the time.
“The longer this goes on,” Coughlin said, “the tougher it’s going to be.”
- Martha Simmons