Just talked with Bob Watkins, the airport authority’s chairman, about why he told me last week that his $10,000 London trade mission last October was to support Zoom Airlines, which went bankrupt two months before his trip.

The trade mission, organized by the San Diego World Trade Center, had been originally scheduled to support Zoom, Watkins said. Tickets had been booked on Zoom.

“When we were planning the trip, they existed,” Watkins said. “When the details were done, the Zoom portion of it — while it would’ve been a great benefit to them — they had come to the conclusion that they were pulling out of San Diego. The whole idea was to celebrate the whole Zoom movement. Unfortunately, they pulled out of the marketplace.”

Watkins said he sat down with the authority’s marketing staff and met with ConVis after Zoom’s August bankruptcy to determine whether authority officials should still go on the October trip.

“They all indicated there was justification for this trip,” he said. “I don’t travel just to go, because it’s no fun. These trips are very hard. We were working from 7:30 a.m. to 10 at night. It was no junket. I wish it would’ve been. It would’ve been more fun.”

He said the group met with the management of London’s Stansted and Heathrow airports. Heathrow had just finished a new terminal project, he said. And with an expansion project planned in San Diego, airport officials wanted to see their security systems, architectural design and operations.

In a separate e-mail, Watkins said: “Stansted Airport ‘looks’ like Lindbergh Field in that it has one runway like ours and is three times more profitable. [W]e wanted to know why.”

Watkins added that during the trip he and an authority staff member also visited several trade groups and economic development organizations with interest in San Diego.

He also went to the Chargers-Saints game, incurring an optional $1,200 charge and attended an optional $350 reception for the team. Watkins arrived early, charging an extra $275 hotel night.

The itinerary also included an evening reception at the Royal Thames Yacht Club, a tour of Cambridge University and an end-of-trip banquet.

Watkins told me that he’d instructed Thella Bowens, the authority’s president and CEO, to look at several issues that I raised on some expense reports and determine whether the reimbursement policy should be tightened.

“If we have to come in with a policy change that is more stringent, we will,” he said.

But he also maintained that the authority’s travel policies are guidelines, not strict rules, and should be flexible — particularly if the airport is run well.

I asked: Aren’t the rules supposed to be the rules — regardless of whether flights are on time?

“Your perspectives are black and white,” he said. “Mine are gray.”


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