With 19 years of aviation experience – all focused on the Southern California airport community – Jesus “Jess” Romo was named the new director of Long Beach Airport at the end of July by City Manager Patrick West.


Romo was born in Los Angeles and grew up in La Puente in the heart of the San Gabriel Valley. He attended public schools in the area all the way through high school and went on to earn a bachelors degree in psychology from the University of California, Irvine in 1984.

Long Beach Airport’s newly appointed director, Jesus “Jess” Romo, and his wife, Lisa, are relocating from Claremont to Long Beach because they feel it is important to be part of the community. He begins his new post on September 6, and will oversee a city department with about 100 employees. (Photograph by the Business Journal’s Larry Duncan)


“Like a number of people right out of college, I’m kind of like, ‘What am I going to do?’” Romo said during an interview in the Business Journal offices. “So I did a little bit of everything, and in 1988 I had the opportunity to apply and interview for a job with the City of Los Angeles.”


By this time, Romo said he had already known his future wife, Lisa, for one year. The two would be married shortly after he began working for the city and two years after that would celebrate the arrival of their first son. They now have three children: 24- and 22-year-old sons and an 18-year-old daughter.


Romo’s position with the city was as an entry-level real estate trainee. He said he started from the bottom learning every aspect of real estate. During his time with the city he worked for the bureau of engineering, the department of water and power and the department of general services.


“I actually sold real estate for the City of L.A. – not commission, it was all salary, which was fine because I got to do a lot of fun stuff with auctions, and I got paid every two weeks which was nice,” Romo said. “That was in 1995 and I was 36. I had a great boss, and he knew someone at the L.A. Times and I was on the front page of the Metro section.”


Romo explained that large cities such as Los Angeles make it possible to progressively move into other areas and departments, which is how he found himself interviewing for his first airport-related position – airport property manager at Ontario International Airport.


In early 1998, he moved his family from Rosemead to Claremont to be 20 miles closer to his new position at Ontario, where he was the property manager for leasing and concessions. He remained at Ontario until January 2001 when the chief operating officer asked him to transfer to either Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) or Van Nuys Airport due to real estate issues each airport was trying to get a handle on.


“Honestly,” Romo said, “I wasn’t ready to [change positions] because our kids were pretty young. But you can’t say no, so I went to Van Nuys. I spent the next seven months there.”


In August 2001, the top position as real estate director for Los Angeles World Airports (LAWA) became available and Romo was strongly encouraged to apply. LAWA at the time included LAX, Ontario, Van Nuys and Palmdale Regional Airport, which was taken over by the City of Palmdale in 2013, all of which Romo oversaw.


“I’d say 90% of my time was really focused on LAX activities,” Romo said. “We had good staff at the outlying airports. I was real estate director for about five years, then I got the opportunity to come back to Ontario as the airport manager.”


This opportunity came in 2006 when Ontario airport was growing and had 435 employees. However, when the recession hit and oil prices skyrocketed, Ontario lost several carriers, including JetBlue Airways and ExpressJet Airlines. Other carriers, including Southwest Airlines, reduced their services.


“In February 2010, [the city] asked me to take on Van Nuys but not give up Ontario – basically take on two airports,” Romo said. “It was actually a challenge in a lot of ways because I had been away from Van Nuys for such a long time, and I was coming back in a very different role. But it was an opportunity.”


Romo explained that Van Nuys was struggling at the time, and the city charged him to make cuts to the budget to make the airport financially self-supporting. Romo said he had no choice but to cut 25 positions, which was a very unpopular decision. However, he pointed out that since 2011, Van Nuys has been self-supporting. Romo oversaw both airports until June of this year.


Due to the nature of Van Nuys and Ontario, Romo said the experience of overseeing both simultaneously was very beneficial and a great opportunity. He explained that Van Nuys is a very busy general aviation airport and Ontario is a medium-sized hub airport, and when you put the two together in regards to the business that is conducted, they are similar to Long Beach Airport (LGB), which has substantial general aviation and commercial activity.


Romo explained that while he was the airport manager of both Ontario and Van Nuys, he still had bosses at LAX to report back to. He said because of this hierarchy no one can ever truly be an airport manager there, and he knew he could do more. This was what led him to apply for the director position at LGB.


“I was pretty picky because, number one, we love Southern California,” Romo said. “I stayed with LAWA for about 19 years, and I didn’t want to go any place too far. And when [the LGB position] came up the second time, I said let’s take a look at that. Obviously I have a boss, the city manager, but he seems very supportive with all of his department heads – they seem to just run their own departments.”


After Romo applied for the position, but before he was named, the City of L.A. asked him to fill in as the interim deputy executive director for operations and emergency management, which he agreed to do. “I did let my boss know that I applied for the position. Small industry. You want them to hear from you and not somebody else,” Romo said.


Two weeks later, Romo got the job offer from Long Beach. His interim position at LAX lasted from the beginning of July to Friday, August 19. Romo begins his new position at LGB on Tuesday, September 6, and he and Lisa are using the downtime to find a new home here in Long Beach.


“When you work in a department that has a lot of community impact, it’s one thing to say, ‘I understand how you feel’ and yet you live far away,” Romo said. “If you’re going to be director of an airport that has impacts on the community, I think it’s good to be part of that community fabric.”


Romo and his wife agree that Long Beach is a great place that they look forward to learning about more intimately as they explore and discover new things. Romo noted that he knew the city had a large population but that he never realized how expansive the city actually is. Aside from its size, the couple noted that several neighborhoods have a similar feel to their current home in Claremont, a trait they are trying to capture in their move.


As for his new position, Romo said he is not bringing any staff with him to LGB, but that through the industry he does know several members of the local airport community, including airline representatives and city employees.


“It’s so important to reach out to all of your tenants because they are all important,” Romo said. “I was a regular attendee of the tenants association meeting at Van Nuys. And in Long Beach, Curt [Castagna, president and chief executive officer of Aerolease/Aeroplex Group] is the president of the tenants association – I will be a regular attendee at those meetings.”


Though he admitted that he knows far less about LGB now than he will in two weeks, he explained some of the ways that LGB is a unique airport. One aspect of the airport that Romo noted is how close it is geographically to LAX, even sharing some of the large airport’s catchment area (the area from which each airport attracts passengers).


Another appealing factor of LGB, according to Romo, is the affordable flights. He attributes this mainly to JetBlue growing its business at LGB and making Long Beach one of its focus cities. He said LGB still struggles with passenger numbers, but thinks this will be corrected with the introduction of Southwest and the recent decision by JetBlue to utilize all of its available flight slots.


“I think anytime you have someone who can provide competition, it’s good,” Romo said. “It’s good for the airport, it’s good for diversity in terms of having choices, and it also forces [airlines] to step up things on the customer service side. [JetBlue utilizing all its slots], I’d say that is in large part due to Southwest.”


When asked about his ideas to increase business and provide better customer service at LGB, Romo said it was too early for him to tell but that every airport always has room for improvement. He intends to encourage staff to listen to the needs of businesses, stakeholders, airline partners and community members to ensure the airport is operating in the best interest of everyone and improving however it can.


“My top priority is really to come in here and be a partner with the folks with whom I work,” Romo said. “I want to be able to build a team that feels we are working together for the betterment of the city and the betterment of the airport and reaching across all lines. Airports are public entities, and they are here to serve all of us. And I think that we owe it to the people that we serve day to day, monthly, quarterly or annually [to determine] how can we be of service.”


Other members of the aviation community, according to Romo, view Long Beach Airport in a positive light. He said that this is mainly because it has been able to retain its feel as a “hometown field” and that it’s robust while still being very manageable. He noted that Van Nuys is 720 acres, Ontario is 1,700 acres, John Wayne Airport in Orange County is 500 acres and LGB is 1,100. He said the size and configuration make it a “very nice” airport complex.


“I say this in a very positive way – it’s a boutique airport,” Romo said. “It’s an airport that is sized to meet what a good part of the community wants. It’s got that old, historic flavor. An upgraded facility, of course, but you’re still getting out on the ramp and getting up into the aircraft, as opposed to going through a jet bridge.”


Outside of work, Romo and Lisa enjoy dining out and look forward to experiencing the Long Beach cuisine. The family also enjoys annual summer vacations in Hawaii. Romo said he tends to their three hens, an idea that started as their daughter’s but quickly became dad’s hobby.


“Our kids are now old enough that we can back off a little bit, but I think we spent a lot of time giving our kids what we thought was the best environment to grow up in,” Romo said. “But we’re looking at this as a kind of new adventure. Leaving an employer that has been very, very good to me for almost 28 years and coming into a place that I’ve got a really good feeling about.”

Brandon Richardson is a reporter and photojournalist for the Long Beach Post and Long Beach Business Journal.