The ROX Interview – Robin Sobotta

Robin Sobotta
Director, Prescott Regional Airport

With Great Risk Comes Great Reward

Interview by Ray Newton

Robin Sobotta, Director, Prescott Regional Airport — Ernest A. Love Field (PRC), has nothing but enthusiasm for what she sees as the future of the airport and aviation activities in Northern Arizona.

 “The Quad Cities have produced a robust aviation community,” she says. “We have more than 300 tenants on the airfield.” Sobotta credits the airport and its growing number of businesses for their economic contributions. “Holistically, this airport is a major economic generator. PRC has really grown up.”

Much of that “robust aviation community” atmosphere is a result of the dedication and influence Sobotta has put into her position as airport director. Initially, she took the position when she was “on loan” for a year-long sabbatical from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (ERAU) in 2018. 

As the founding chair of the business school at ERAU-Prescott, Sobotta enjoyed a 20-year academic career with the university. Previously, she had 17 years of airport and aviation industry experience working at five airports, as a NASA business consultant, and on Arizona’s Aerospace and Defense Commission.

In addition to being an Accredited Airport Executive, Sobotta holds an MBA from ERAU, and a Ph.D. in public administration from Arizona State University. Sobotta has written several aviation publications, including coauthoring a book, The Administration of Public Airports. 

Aside from aviation, golf has played a major role in her life. She attended the University of Michigan on a golf scholarship, and played on the men’s golf team in high school, where she met her future husband Tom Roush. They’ve been married for 19 years. 

In 2019, Sobotta was selected by the Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT) as Airport Executive of the Year. Prescott Regional Airport received the Federal Aviation Administration’s Western-Pacific Region Outstanding Airport Award in 2019, and was named ADOT’s Airport of the Year in 2020.

Prescott LIVING: You worked at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University before accepting the full-time position as Airport Director? You took on a one-year sabbatical in 2018-2019, and ERAU would have welcomed your return. What prompted you to accept the fulltime position?

Robin Sobotta: When I went on a sabbatical, it was intended to be a one-year leave of absence. Sabbaticals are meant to allow for some rest and rejuvenation. In academia, we want to be as current as possible to best prepare our students for future success. I am a high-energy person and felt this could also be a transformational move to support the community. I also thought, “Well, this will be kind of fun.”

When I took the job on Jan. 29, 2018, the commercial air carrier was Great Lakes. Also, the City had been talking about building a terminal for decades. I found some original documents in our files including a proposal to the FAA in the 1980s for a new terminal. The construction cost then was under $1 million (versus $15 million today). Remember — that’s 40 years ago. 

In late March 2018, Great Lakes folded up shop. That gave us a unique opportunity to seek a new air service provider. 

We, the community, took a risk. We went without commercial air service for four months. This allowed more time for carriers to submit bids for essential air service rights at PRC. Seven air carriers bid. We really had a winner when SkyWest Airlines, operating under the United Express banner, submitted the winning bid. At that point, everything changed.

In addition, Boutique Air recently launched daily flights to Phoenix. What a difference from just three years ago. All this made me realize it was a good time to just keep staying on; so when the City asked me to stay, I said, “Yes.” 

Prescott LIVING: Prescott Regional Airport now ranks 25th in the nation in terms of air traffic operations, correct?

Robin Sobotta: Yes. In 2019, PRC was ranked as the 45th busiest airport in the nation. But, in 2020, because of COVID, many large commercial service airports throughout the country had reduced operations. Because our pilot training numbers grew last year, our national ranking increased to 25th. While our average aircraft size is not as large as some of the lower ranked airports, our frequency of operations is quite phenomenal. 

To give you an idea, in terms of 2020 aircraft operations, we were busier than airports in San Francisco, Orlando, Philadelphia, Newark, Boston, JFK and Baltimore. Even Dallas and Oakland were ranked below us. This is quite an extraordinary list.

Prescott LIVING: Questions about the airport and the expansion. There’s discussion of a $64-million extension of the main runway. Why is that necessary?

Robin Sobotta: PRC is considered a “hot and high” airport. Our airfield elevation is at 5,045 feet with warm weather a good deal of the year. This combination of high elevation and warm air requires that aircraft need more runway length to take off. The heavier the aircraft weight, the more runway needed. Pilots determine the runway length needed to safely depart, and airlines determine the maximum number of passenger seats available on flights during the warmer months.

Previously, the airline has limited seat sales, due to our short runway. An extension could take the main runway from 7,619 feet to 11,000 feet and allow more airline seats to be available. 

A longer runway doesn’t necessarily mean larger airplanes. Rather, we want to have enough runway length to allow our airlines to fill every available seat. Also, the U.S. Forest Service air tanker base staff would potentially benefit by allowing them to include more weight (for extinguishing agent
or fuel) on board their fire-fighting aircraft. 

Prescott LIVING: Why do you think SkyWest/United Express has been so successful here?

Robin Sobotta: It’s really been an untapped market. Individuals wanted a reliable choice, and they didn’t feel the prior carrier was reliable. Frankly, we have seen pretty good performance. With United Express, our completion (non-cancellation) rate has been 99%, with a 90% on-time performance in 2020. These are really good numbers.

Direct flights into Denver are a blessing. Those give us access to one of the busiest airports in the country with a lot of connectivity. We also like the connections through Los Angeles, which provides both domestic and international flight connections.

Passengers tell us that driving down I-17 to Sky Harbor in Phoenix is nobody’s preference. It’s a tedious, sometimes unpredictable ride. Some people even leave the night before — and pay for lodging — so they won’t miss their flight. So, it’s great that we have air service options for northern Arizona residents. 

Prescott LIVING: Do these airlines coming to PRC anticipate expanding the number of destinations? 

Robin Sobotta: The answer is yes. I just can’t disclose this information yet. That’s something they will announce when they’re ready. We’re looking at additional flights to current destinations as well as additional destinations. Those will likely be very popular with our passengers.

Based on our market data, I can tell you where passengers like to go, historically. The most popular destination connecting through LAX is San Francisco, followed by Chicago and Sacramento. The top destination through Denver is Chicago, followed by Minneapolis and Boston.

I believe PRC has the potential to be much like Flagstaff Airport in airline activity, with as many as five and six flights outbound, daily. Flagstaff’s catchment size — that means the number of air travelers within 90 minutes of the airport — is approximately the same as Prescott’s catchment size. We could reach a quarter-million total passengers in a decade.

Prescott LIVING: Are other airlines looking at Prescott? 

Robin Sobotta: Interest has been expressed by other airlines, yes. I’ve had three in the last two years that have approached me about the possibility. It might have happened earlier, except for the COVID situation. The airline industry now needs to stabilize. But this is not the first time that the aviation industry has had big challenges. I’m sure it’ll emerge stronger — and frankly, more efficient.

Prescott LIVING: Another question — enplanements (boardings) and deplanements. Is the trend up, down, stable? Are airfares going to likely go down?

Robin Sobotta: It’s been a challenging year. During the pandemic, we’ve naturally had some reductions in passenger traffic. In 2020, we exceeded 13,000 enplanements, which is 26,000 total passengers. People do need to get home or travel to where they need to go. We fully expect to rebound after the pandemic and increase in both passengers and aircraft operations over the next three to five years.

Obviously, there’s a lot of caution in travel. We continue to believe it’s safe. A mask has been mandated at airports by federal law. Airlines are enforcing it. There’s also good air exchange onboard airplanes. Still, people are cautious about travel. So the first quarter of 2021 wasn’t as strong as the first quarter of, say, 2019. We expect it’ll bounce back. 

We’re seeing airfares go up and down during the pandemic. Up in some cases in markets where carriers had challenges in filling seats and raised prices to help recover costs. Down because some airlines filled seats by incentivizing travel. People have had unique opportunities to fly globally at fares we haven’t seen since 9/11.

Prescott LIVING: Are the enplanements predominantly Prescott people, Quad Cities people? Or are they coming from central and northern Arizona — for example, Cottonwood or Flagstaff?

Robin Sobotta: About 90% of our travelers are from within Yavapai County. Air travelers have come from Flagstaff, Williams, Sedona, Cottonwood, Camp Verde, Bagdad and Wickenburg. They really like the daily nonstop LA and Denver flights. We have free parking for up to 10 days, which is a bonus over PHX. They enjoy Prescott and then have an hour-and 20-minute to an hour-and 40-minute flight. 

Prescott LIVING: The new passenger terminal opened in March of this year. Could you share some of the features for passengers?

Robin Sobotta: At the new terminal people have free Wi-Fi and new security technology. The Transportation Security Agency (TSA) recently provided us with a new full body scanner. This uses safe, radio frequency energy and emits less energy than a cellphone transmission.  

Previously, TSA relied on a walk-through metal detector to screen passengers. When a metal object was detected, a comprehensive body search was required to clear a passenger. The new technology expedites the passenger screening experience and provides a narrow, more targeted area to search, which is more comfortable for passengers.

The terminal is spacious, allowing people to spread out and social distance. We’ve got two gate-hold rooms that can hold 151 passengers. People can take advantage of quartz technology desks in the gate area to get work done. They can also visit the post-security pet relief area with their dogs or utilize the mother’s room for nursing privacy.

We also have a modernized space for car rental companies, including our current operator Avis/Budget. Notably, Prescott Regional Airport is one of the largest Avis/Budget locations in northern Arizona, with approximately 100 vehicles in their based fleet. During COVID, some people who did not want to fly, instead opted to rent a reliable new car for their vacation or business travel.  

I’ve personally taken several flights to Denver, LA and beyond, and it’s a joy to fly out of here.  Each day, I still smile as the airline flight departs. From my office window, I have a great view — of the planes, the terminal and all the happy passengers using our airlines. That’s exciting to me. I’m thankful for all the travelers who’ve used our air service.

Prescott LIVING: What’s been your biggest challenge?

Robin Sobotta: The airport is going through our growth while the community is going through its growth. There are pressures, particularly in the vicinity of the airport, for new home construction. Residential development, including affordable housing, is crucial to the future growth of our community. But it can be a concern with regard to the future viability of the airport. 

In an effort to share information about the airport with the public, I’ve delivered more than 50 public presentations since 2018. When folks purchase a home near the airport, I truly want them to be well-informed of the potential for frequent aircraft overflight.  

Future growth of local air traffic is expected as flight operations at PRC increase. We are a popular flight-training airport, critical for generating the skilled pilots needed to fly passenger, cargo and corporate aircraft. The U.S. Forest Service firefighting operation provides critical emergency services across the region.  

As we evolve as a community, I’m proud of our City leadership for seeking to create a North Prescott Master Plan because the airport area serves an important role as economic generator. Many businesses and jobs require quick, convenient access to commercial flights, charter aircraft services, and their company aircraft. Also, when people relocate here residentially, many of them have a list of questions. One of those is: “Do you have good air service?”

All of these collectively play into our decisions, including assuring compatible land use for those areas next to the airport. So, my biggest challenge is to balance opportunities and concerns.  

Prescott LIVING: Have you had any big disappointments? 

Robin Sobotta: I haven’t had any major disappointments. As I said earlier, there are challenges, especially when undergoing change of this magnitude. We’ve transitioned into a successful primary commercial service airport that serves the entire region. We’ve been well-recognized by our federal and state partners for our efforts. We have grown up.

People often see me as “the” representative of PRC. What they may not see are the 12-13 other airport employees who make sure the runways are open and safe when it’s snowing. These dedicated employees oversee multiple airfield construction projects, manage complex grant processes, respond to air service calls from the community, and provide security support when a commercial flight operates.

Airport employees arrive at 4:30 in the morning so the flight can leave at 6 or 7 a.m. They may be here until midnight or later. We have amazing operations, administration and maintenance staff here at PRC. It’s not a large staff, but they are remarkable in their capability and skill.

And frankly, the airlines are part of our team, along with FAA air traffic controllers, TSA agents, and Legend employees who fuel aircraft. We also work closely with valued airport consultants like Dibble and interact regularly with many of our tenants. This is a robust aviation community — truly a team effort across the airport.

We’ve matured at the airport while we’ve evolved as a community. We’re just paralleling the amazing success that the city leadership has had in developing this community, as we move from a maintenance city to a growth city. It’s quite remarkable.

Prescott LIVING: What do you do for fun, relaxation or inspiration?

Robin Sobotta: My husband and I enjoy cruising along the west coast — Alaska, Mexico, and “sea days” where we can just relax. At $3 a minute for on-board calls, I try to leave work behind, if even for just a day or two. We’ve already taken 16 cruises, mostly with Princess Cruises. Of course, we fly United Express to Los Angeles to access the nearby San Pedro cruise port.  

Family is important. Our oldest children and 6-year old grandchild, Eloise, lives in Chandler. Sunday breakfast with them includes orange rolls and oven-cooked sweet & spicy bacon. We visit our younger children in Carlsbad (California) with a seafood stop at Fish 101 or Rockin’ Baja Lobster.  

My folks, Shirley and Paul, just moved in near our home in Prescott Lakes. I love having them close so we can easily share a Rosa’s Pizzeria pizza or Berry’s Pie Pantry banana crème pie.

Sometimes I find hope or inspiration in simple motivational messages — like those found in fortune cookies! I have a group of favorites on my desk, including: “Your courage will guide your future”; “With great risk comes great reward”; “Your enthusiasm will bring life to a dormant project”; “You never hesitate to tackle the most difficult problems”; “Your hard work is about to pay off. Family will rejoice with you”; and, “Visualize the win.” 

My latest favorite is: “Make time for what (and who) you love.” While this can be a challenge to achieve with this busy director’s position, I plan to work on it!

Prescott LIVING: What’s your biggest work-related satisfaction? 

Robin Sobotta: For more than a decade, I sat on various City airport planning committees as an academic, visioning what could happen at this airport — a new terminal, better air service, a longer runway, and more. It’s been exciting to serve in a key role, to help transform that vision into reality.

I give a “shout out” to City Manager Michael Lamar and the City Council leadership for their dedication to investing in the future. It really takes a supportive political framework and people committed to achieving our strategic vision. Even though there are challenges in investing in this facility, we know it can yield significant returns. 

Prescott LIVING: How much federal and state grant support has the airport received recently? What has been the result of your airport development efforts?

Robin Sobotta: We’ve already received more than $26 million in federal and state funding over the past three years. With that, we’ve upgraded the airfield pavements, added safety and security improvements, and built an amazing new passenger terminal. And, we’re not done. 

In the next five years, we’re hoping to be awarded an additional $85 million in grants, including funds for the main runway extension. Of course, the continuation of grant funding is up to Congress, state legislators, and agencies like the FAA Airports Division and ADOT Aeronautics. I do hope we will continue to receive strong financial support for the future development of our airport.

However, it’s more than just the money that’s invested in the physical airport. The end result of those investments are plenty — entry of new businesses, support for existing businesses and success within our academic institutions. Commercial service airports are key to optimal supply chain development. We also ensure passenger and freight access to the national air transportation system.

We support the City’s strategic evolution from a tourism-focused economy to one that is broader-based. The airport and surrounding business park foster new employment opportunities with good wages. This encourages our local workforce talent and new graduates to remain local. We see this as a win-win for the airport and the community.

That’s the really exciting part. We’re starting to see this all unfold. And more is coming. This takes cooperation between industry, academia, public sector partners and community support throughout the region. We’re proud PRC is part of it.