Why DFW Airport’s Leader is the Highest-Paid Airport CEO in America

There are a lot of takeoffs these days at DFW Airport, including the chief executive’s salary.

The Dallas Fort Worth Airport board on Thursday approved a hefty bonus and merit pay increase for Sean Donohue, airport chief executive officer.

Donohue is believed to be the highest-paid airport CEO in the United States. Including his salary and bonus, Donohue is expected to earn a total of $694,863 in 2019.

“He has been here six years and he has done a beautiful job,” said Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price, who sits on the DFW Airport board. “All you have to do is look at the financials, the increase in passengers, in revenue.”

Donohue, whose base salary for 2019 was $511,568, on Thursday was awarded a one-time bonus of $183,295, based upon a complicated formula in which Donohue gets credit for the airport’s achievements in revenue, passenger volume and other goals.

For 2020, Donohue received a 3 percent merit increase in his base salary, bringing it to $526,915. A year from now, he could be eligible for an additional six-figure bonus, if the airport meets certain financial targets and other goals.

Although DFW is perennially among the top 10 busiest airports in the world based on a variety of traffic measurements, Donohue’s salary is at a much higher altitude than his peers.

For example, John Seldon, who runs the world’s busiest airport in Atlanta, makes $280,000 a year, according to The Washington Post. The head of Reagan National and Dulles airports in Washington, D.C., John Potter, makes $488,595.

But since Donohue’s arrival in 2013, DFW has dramatically increased its international flights. As a result, Donohue’s salary should not only be compared to domestic peers but also executives from prestigious airports around the world, DFW officials said.

“We are comparing ourselves to the international airports,” said Bill Meadows of Fort Worth, DFW Airport board chairman. “By any measure, it has been a successful year.”

For example, John Holland-Kaye, CEO of London’s Heathrow Airport, receives $1.876 million annually including his $1.299 million base salary and bonuses, according to a DFW staff report. Geoff Culbert, CEO of the Sydney, Australia airport, has a salary and bonus total of $1.682 million a year.

“His bonus is formula-driven,” Meadows said of Donohue. “It’s based on key performance indicators that we have to achieve at DFW Airport.”

DFW Airport leaders also point out that, although the airport is jointly owned by the cities of Dallas and Fort Worth, the salaries of the airport’s administrative team aren’t paid with tax dollars. Instead, many of DFW’s expenses are paid by fees that airlines pay to use the airport.

DFW is the world headquarters for American Airlines, which now operates more than 900 flights per day from the airfield. American and its subsidiaries handle roughly 84 percent of all flights in and out of DFW.

Before the board voted unanimously to approve the pay hike, Donohue provided an overview of the airport’s accomplishments during the past year.


The board is moving forward with the construction of a sixth passenger terminal, Terminal F, which “will provide us with gates for the next 30 to 40 years,” Donohue said.

DFW also performed more than $300 million in capital improvements in 2019, and added 17 domestic and nine international routes, he said.

“Our passenger growth is the best we’ve seen in probably two decades,” Donohue said.

In October, 6.37 million passengers passed through DFW Airport, an 11 percent increase compared to the same month a year ago, DFW staff reported.

DFW Airport has an annual operating budget of $1 billion for 2020, and employs roughly 2,000 people. That employment figure doesn’t include the roughly 60,000 people who work at the airport each day for airlines, concessionaires and other contractors.

Board members also noted that, under Donohue’s leadership, DFW received a report of zero discrepancies from the Federal Aviation Administration in annual inspections — the first such accomplishment in 14 years.

The annual inspections cover a variety of items, including the quality of the airport’s training records, police and fire response time and the condition of airfield lights and runways.

SOURCE: Fort-Worth Star Telegram