Kreulen anxious to fill hole in BNA’s international plan

Friday, October 5, 2018, Vol. 42, No. 40

The area in yellow is being filled with the loads of 55,000 dump trucks and is the first of a two-phase plan that will increase the usable space by about 13 acres and accommodate a new international arrivals facility.

-- Photographs Courtesy Of Bnavision

Decorated for various meritorious actions in at least two wars, the retired Air Force pilot who relishes jet-skiing with his “grand-doggy,” looks through his office blinds and points out a steady stream of heaped-high dump trucks rolling across his horizon and descending into a monstrous hole.

In a choreographed heavy-metal dance, the trucks dump their payloads and climb from the hole, one at a time, making room for the next one in line to follow suit, all to bring life to this previously useless piece of land at Nashville International Airport.

“We’ve had about 10,000 dump trucks helping to fill that hole,” says the war hero, grand-doggy lover and damn nice guy whose green eyes trail the rhythmic dance line of trucks that are helping the former Air Force colonel in his battle to erase the massive dent in the landscape to expand BNA’s position as an international destination.

“It’s going to take 55,000 dump trucks to fill that hole,” says Douglas E. Kreulen, president and CEO of the Metropolitan Nashville Airport Authority.

“That’s going to be where the international planes are parked,” says this fellow whose “baby” is the London flight out of BNA and back that began in May. That was just months after his promotion to top dog and commander of this rapidly expanding destination for “It City” explorers and, now, gateway to Europe and the world.

Looking from his windows at the churn of construction and transportation in all directions, it’s almost hard to imagine that, deep into the 1980s, I used to board flights here by walking out of the weather-beaten terminal at what then was called Berry Field and climb up one of those rolling stairways (aka “airways” or, as I would call them: “big, metal steps on wheels”) to board. It was a time, also, when whoever was picking me up could wait on the tarmac.

“Today we can hold two international jets,” says 6-foot-5 flyboy Doug, noting there is space for the 214-passenger Boeing 787-800 used by British Airways and for one other international jet. Perhaps to Calgary or Toronto. Or preferably (if I was choosing) “the Caribbean flights. Jamaica. Mexico. ….” hauling sand-and-sun-yearning folks to the flowers-in-drinks lands of Rastafarians, Mayan ruins, bullfights, white-and-black beaches and – depending on your destination – shots of the fermented and distilled blue agave juice my friend Kinky Friedman identifies as “Mexican mouthwash.”

While discussing the possibilities of future global travel out of BNA, I tell Doug that my own international travel has included a few trips to Romania, birthland of my two children. That trips a warm smile from the former Air Force colonel who trained Romanian war pilots at Bucharest’s Aeroport Otopeni.

“You ever try Dracula’s blood?” he asks.

“No, I’ve been to his castle, but never sampled his blood” is what races through my mind as I shake my head.

“It’s kind of like the Romanian version of Greek Ouzo.” His mock-pained expression does not encourage me to hoist one next time I’m in Romania. But then, it’s likely better for me than their tap water.

Doug turns bright eyes from the soft parade of dump trucks and reaches for his phone, beginning a search for photos.

“I can show you Charley, my grand-doggy,” he says. “She’s the best.”

He laments that his contact with the beloved German shepherd mix is limited, as she lives in Columbia, South Carolina, with one of his sons, Ryan, 30, who “works in the airport business” like his old man.

“It’s sad,” says the retired colonel, speaking of the distance between his Williamson County home and the 8-year-old dog (and I suppose the son, also).

“I wish I could see her more,” he says, rescuing one picture and displaying it on the phone screen. “She’s a looker. Nobody can date Charley. I don’t think that if I ever have grandkids I’ll love them as much as my grand-dog.”

By the way, Doug’s other son, Sam, 28, lives in Nashville and is an exec for Cracker Barrel. He does not have a dog for grandpa to brag about. Perhaps he should consider one.

Doug turns his attention back to the horizon, where they’re fixing a hole so the planes can come in and pilots can stop their minds from wondering where they will go, to paraphrase a line from my old Liverpool chums.

“In the future, we will hold six international planes out there,” says this 60-year-old visionary who directs a team (to whom he gives most of the credit) overseeing BNA Vision, the battle-plan mapping progress’ all-out blitz.

One of the most-visible improvements will be the new parking towers (expanding short-term to 7,000 spaces from the current 2,300). And there also is a new concourse coming, a new administration building and roadways offering less life-threatening merges and splits while dropping off or picking up loved ones or, if you draw the short straw at the office, your “favorite” hot-shot corporate boss from L.A. or the Apple.

“I think it is exciting,” Doug says after rattling off the projects occurring basically on all corners of what could easily be called his civilian command post.

He compares the process to real-world applications of Lincoln Logs or models. I toss in, quietly, LEGOS as another analogy. Course, what’s going on here won’t be deconstructed and thrown back in a box. Instead Doug and Company are trying to get a few concrete (and otherwise) steps ahead of growth.

“We’ve been adding one million passengers a year for the last five years,” he says. “We have 15 million now.”

That’s reason enough for the new short-term towers that are being added to the surface lots already spread across the shuttle-able Donelson countryside.

“We have different lots depending on how far away people want to park,” he adds. “We want to give everybody whatever flavor of parking they want.” It’s sort of a Burger King, “Have it your way” approach to serving the rapidly growing customer base and their pocketbooks.

Doug then asks if I had gotten my own short-term parking ticket validated. I did, though it had taken about 20 minutes to find a parking spot on this Tuesday afternoon at BNA, proving the current 2,300-space short-term lot, like this author, wasn’t made for times like these.

“It’s that way Tuesday through Thursday,” Doug allows of the over-burdened short-term lot where many travelers, patience worn thin and launch looming, “create” spaces by nudging vehicles next to those parked in the final spot in each row, choking off hope of easily negotiating the lot.

I nod toward Shannon Sumrall, airport communications director, who sits in, silently (unless needed as sort of a living Google for airport facts or names), and who handled my validation …. Or at least my parking ticket.

“Shannon really runs this place,” says the former Air Force colonel who grew up an Army brat, as did his wife Susan. The family lived in 15 different places during the 27 years of his Air Force service and in subsequent years of airport management in Huntsville and for the last six years here (he became prez/CEO last December after 5 and a half years in other top-exec roles.)

“Everybody has to have a boss,” he says, nodding toward Shannon. I point out to him that he already has awarded that title to his wife of 38 years. He doesn’t disagree, instead describing their first meeting, his first day of class at Auburn after transferring from Enterprise (Alabama) State Junior College.

“I was in my first class, calculus (we agree that is a bone-chillingly cruel subject). I was sitting next to a guy who turned out to be Susan’s brother, but I didn’t know it at the time.


“I saw these two girls come in, and I said to him: ‘Hey that girl in the short-hair is very attractive’ and he (the other guy) said it was his sister and he’d introduce her to me.” (I don’t press him on this, but I believe – from my own deeply hormonal memories – that his “very attractive” comment is likely a PG-rated spin on what a college boy would say in such circumstances.)

The love birthed that day remains his driving force, and perhaps, is one of the reasons for the stone-cold allegiance to Auburn that led Doug and Susan to buy a house on Lake Martin, near the so-called loveliest village in the plains “that makes for a nice place to go on football weekends.”

That allegiance carries the requisite “dislike” (to put it mildly) of the Alabama Crimson Tide, the fire-spitting rivals of the burnt-orange-and-Navy-blue Auburn Tigers. I stoke the fire a bit by mentioning the eight-year-old, cold-blooded murder of the historic Toomer’s Corner oaks – that lovely village’s landmarks, for decades decorated with a frenzy of toilet paper by fans after Auburn victories.

“It didn’t make sense,” he says of the so-called Bama fan, who was jailed for the poisonings. “Why kill living things?”

The tree killer doesn’t represent Archbishop Nick Saban’s rabid congregation, for sure, we agree.

Still, he deadpans: “If my car was on fire and I was driving past Tuscaloosa on the interstate, I wouldn’t stop.”

He admits that one of his few hobbies is sitting in front of the television on autumn Saturdays, watching a menu filled with football, particularly paying attention when Aubie the Tiger and the guys take the field. I’m sure he can holler “War Eagle” with military precision and requisite fervor.

Doug’s office, reached through an inconspicuous door and secured elevator, befits a former vice wing commander used to directing squadrons of people on land and in the air. In addition to the wall of windows and blinds overlooking his command, another wall is covered by a whiteboard on which he can track – via different colored markers – personnel, duties and accomplishments.

“I usually keep that on the Weather Channel,” he says, pointing to the likely 60-inch (he’s not sure) television mounted on the opposite wall, near his desk. Makes sense, considering the impact of weather on his business. “Sometimes I change it if there is breaking news.”

He points to the fourth wall, which holds two massive paintings that, when viewed together, tell a story.

“That’s part of the Arts at the Airport program,” he explains, noting his paintings are from an airport-wide endeavor to showcase local art and music and calm perhaps-hyperventilating passengers.

“It’s supposed to make people relax,” he points out, looking at the two on his wall. “I look at it and think it’s a picture of a grandfather looking down (on a farm) at his grandson. I like it because of the hills, the trails, the green.”

He says it calms him, although he can seldom relax and look at the artwork.

“With this, I find I don’t sit down much all day,” he says, stepping behind his desk and piloting his computer desk, one of those elevating jobs that lifts keyboard and two screens from lap-level to elbow-level, allowing this highly-decorated combat pilot to stand up while stroking the keys.

After lowering his desk and sipping again on an orange-colored energy drink, he looks over and smiles. “I like your T-shirt,” he says, pointing to a psychedelic version of the “Let It Be” album cover that I’m wearing beneath my sport coat. “It’s appropriate on a day we’re talking about the London flight.

Before becoming an airport executive, Doug Kreulen was an Air Force combat pilot and commander. Here he is seen
in a C-130.

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“We had Madame Tussauds’ wax Beatles here for that (May 4 maiden voyage celebration),” he recalls.

“We had them crossing … what was it? … Abbey Road,” he says, of the Tussaud installation for that final countdown.

To make that day happen, the airport spent $10.4 million for the temporary loading and unloading of British Airways passengers.

“We had to have a new kitchen for them and other incentives,” he says, again – like a good commander – pushing the credit to his troops. “The team we put together has got to implement all the changes.”

The London flights occur five days a week (except Tuesday and Sunday). “The plane (from London) lands about 5:40 and takes off around 8 p.m. (returning to Her Majesty’s very-green island).”

He’s not taken the flight himself yet – “I’m waiting for Shannon to give me my vacation,” he laughs, nodding toward the communications director.

He also adds that after 27 years of flying Air Force war-and-peace machines “it’s nice to be in the airport business without having to worry about being a pilot.”

Still, he reckons, this flight has proven a bloody success, far exceeding British Airways projections of 70 percent of seats filled the first year, 80 percent the second year and 90 percent by year three.

“We’re 90 percent full now,” he recounts. “We have had 32,127 passengers (as of this interview).

“That includes (about) half of them who are going to England and half who are coming here” via the eight-hour flight.

In the first four months (May 4-August 30), the 16,396 passengers who arrived from London have had an economic impact of $13.6 million, according to the Convention and Visitors Corporation.

“We know they are spending money downtown” in our neon-lit, designed-for-tourists, honky-tonk Disney World. “And those going to London are spending money there,” Doug adds.

He says the direct flight and its unexpected early success “just symbolizes the growth that Nashville is experiencing.” Yes, our fabled “It City” has gone international, with foreign tourists joining the rest of the 15 million who annually use the airport, many running down a dream, others seeking grits, grins and guitars.

“Look to the 1990s. Eighty percent of passengers never got out of the airport,” Doug says. If they left their planes at all, it was just to board a connecting flight. “Now 80 percent are going to spend money here.”

He stops to take another sip of his energy drink and looks toward the window.

Doug Kreulen with his “grand-doggy,” Charley on the jet-ski. “She’s a rebel.”

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“We’re going beyond Europe,” he says, setting down the orange potion. “We are trying to maintain that momentum.”

Doug says the next phase targets Tokyo. “We have 180 companies in Tennessee that are Japanese-based, and they employ 40,000 Tennesseans. … We ask ourselves ‘How do we meet their business requirements?’”

That direct flight, if it happens, is a long way off. The airport staff has surveyed carriers and the business community about popular potential destinations, and it turns out that 30 people per day fly to Tokyo from Nashville. Hardly a jet-load.

Even though he’s spent his life in the Air Force, he really was following in the steps of both his father and father-in-law, Army helicopter pilots in Vietnam.

He spent the first part of his career flying Air Force copters, but most of his long hitch was spent as a commander working from the cockpit of giant C-130 transport jets, carrying paratroopers and supplies to hot spots in Kosovo, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait….

“I was a combat pilot for all 27 years,” he says. No, he answers, he wasn’t like Tom “Maverick” Cruise, the cocky young fighter pilot in “Top Gun” back in 1986 and likely still a cocky old pilot in the upcoming sequel.

“I was better than them,” he says of the cinematic flyboys. “Anybody can be a Top Gun.”

He’s only half-joking, as while he’s certainly no action-film hero, he saw plenty of real-world action in his combat-support missions, many of them part of Special Ops.

In addition to working as chief of staff at the Air Force Academy, Doug spent time in what the military refers to as “the concrete foxhole” near the Potomac in D.C., where he served as chief of the Readiness Division for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

“I was at the Pentagon during 9/11,” he recalls, a bit somberly.

He remembers vividly being in an 8:30-9:30 a.m. meeting. “I had just left the meeting when American Flight 77 hit the Pentagon,” killing all 64 people on board – five hijackers and six crewmembers included, as well as 125 people in the building.

“I heard it strike the building and then the hallways filled with smoke,” he says. “We evacuated and were told to go home. It took me six hours to get out of D.C. that day…Then when I got home, I was called back in, where I worked from 10 at night until 10 in the morning” for months as a readiness and precautionary measure.

His plans are to stay on at the airport until at least 2023, when BNA Vision will be completed, “as long as the board is happy with me.”

After that, his plans are more grounded. “One of my goals when I retire is to hike the Appalachian Trail, 2,180 miles.”

His wife, Susan, his regular partner – “we like to hike eight or 10 miles on weekends” – won’t be with him on that hike. “She may meet me along the way….

“We’ve been married 38 great years,” he says. “I’m warming up on her.”

Outside on the other side of the terminal, trucks continue to dump loads into the hole.

Doug again reaches for his phone and scrolls through his photos, landing on one. “This is Charley jet-skiing with me,” he says, holding out the screen of his phone. “She’s a rebel.”

There’s a knock on his door. He’s got to get to some sort of exciting meeting about documents, he says, as the conversation ends, and he tucks the phone away.

I know what he’s thinking, though. As he’s fervently proclaimed during our lilting conversation: “I wish I could take Charley for a walk.”