Twenty-eight years ago, Tony Gonchar was a recent graduate of Hobart and William Smith College living in a tiny New York City apartment with his wife when they decided they were ready for a change.
“The apartment that my wife and I were living in was smaller than a conference table I now have in my office here,” Gonchar recalled during an interview in his downtown Bellevue office, where he works as the Seattle Vice President for Delta Air Lines.
The couple packed its meager belongings, bought one-way tickets (on a Delta flight, ironically), and landed in Seattle with zero job prospects.
For a while, Gonchar thought he might want to be a mountaineering guide — one of the reasons he and his wife picked Washington as their final destination — but decided it wasn’t a viable career for him after a few summers on the mountain.
Instead, Gonchar found himself in a series of jobs that kept him close to the travel industry. He spent seven years at Expedia beginning in the early 2000s, and rose through the ranks to become the company’s vice president of distribution marketing.
In 2014, Gonchar made another big change. He met Bob Somers, senior vice president of sales for Delta, at an industry event and was impressed. When he heard the airline was preparing to expand in Seattle, Gonchar decided to join the company — first as director of sales for the Pacific Northwest region.
“I always look at this as being in the right place at the right time,” he explained.
In his current role, Gonchar is tasked with managing the company’s Pacific Northwest growth — something he refers to as a “startling trajectory.” Daily flights have increased from just over 40 to more than 170, and the company has added more than 2 million seats along the way. Today, Delta Air Lines employs more than 3,200 people in the region and flies to more than 50 destinations from Seattle.
Gonchar splits his time working on commercial partnerships and building civic partnerships with the likes of the Port of Seattle and Seattle-Tacoma International Airport to grow Delta as a global carrier.
Gonchar recently shared his thoughts on the competitive airline industry, Everett’s Paine Field, and how improvements at Sea-Tac will help passengers travel more efficiently.
Q: Delta has had a foothold in the Pacific Northwest for years. However, many see Seattle-based Alaska Airlines as the hometown carrier. How is Delta competing with Alaska in this market?
A: The way I think Delta looks at this is in the eyes of the consumer. When companies compete, really good things happen for, in this case, travelers. Generally, the quality of the service goes up across all competitors because you are trying to ensure you can demonstrate your product effectively.
You also see that prices do come down. As a matter of fact, since 2013, we have helped lower airfares by $100 million in passenger savings — or about six percent. This is verified through analysis done by a third party. Competition is great, and the market is growing.
I think the last stats I saw, the Census Bureau released population figures that show Seattle is growing faster than Austin, Texas — we’re one of the nation’s fastest-growing cities in this entire decade. With that growth, both airlines have grown along with it, and that kind of competition is great for consumers. It gives them choices on what they can do. We are pleased about offering Seattleites choices and being the largest global airline in the market.
Q: Is Delta planning to expand coverage to Paine Field in Everett?
A: We’re excited to see the opportunity for another commercial facility opening up in the north area. That’s something like 700,000 (potential passengers). If folks can use that as an alternative, then that’s great for them. But it’s probably something that we are going to continue to monitor and look at. As a global airline, we’re probably less interested in participating in the growth of the facility. We’d like to see how it can shake out once the first flights start going. They’ve got a pretty demanding schedule for what we call “gate turns,” which is essentially how many flights per day can go out of an individual gate. We’ll continue to watch and monitor it. It’s a new opportunity for customers that live in that area. We’ll wait and see.
Q: With all of this growth, it looks like expanding globally is one of the next strategic moves for the carrier. What is Delta doing to grow internationally?
A: There is a new International Arrivals Facility being built at Sea-Tac that is pretty critical to our global expansion, thereby using Seattle as a hub to be able to connect those people that are coming through Seattle to go onward to Asia.
Q: What will this new International Arrivals Facility mean for Seattle?
A: We’re a world-class city, and we have a 1970s-built International Arrivals Facility. Our growth in both population and the (number of) folks that are coming in and out of our airport has outpaced the ability of that facility to manage the input of new arrivals. This brand-new facility will have one of the first and few biometric recognition stations that U.S. Customs and Border Protection are going to be putting into place. It is going to double the throughput to about 3,500 people through that new facility when it is completed, which is now slated for third quarter 2020.
Q: How involved has Delta been with the planning for the new facility?
A: Delta has had the opportunity to have a seat at the table in terms of how (the facility) is being designed and developed.
Q: What were some of the things that you spoke up for?
A: Right now, between airports in various cities, Delta has got about $12 billion worth of construction going on. We know airport construction, and a lot of it is working not only with the Port of Seattle, but the construction managers, as well as the airport facility, to insert our expertise and guidance in the direction that we need to go in order to build this out in the timeframe that has been agreed to.
The other part of this is the activation component. You can have a facility that is completely built out, and then you need to make sure that all airlines are able to operate effectively. Think of a brand-new restaurant, and on the very first day that you are opening is the same day that the waiters are learning how to deliver plates — you would probably wind up with a lot of dishes on the floor. That activation is really critical, so that is something that we are very intimately involved in.
Q: What else is Delta working on in regard to Sea-Tac?
A: We’ve got these high-speed carousels that are able to do greater throughput. The next time that you are down there and flying Delta, our checkpoint security, too, has got these bag carousels that are going to make the throughput go better. If you’ve flown in the summer, you know we are very congested. Having the opportunity to have this new automated facility available is something we are very excited about.