Mario Rodriguez has 20 years under his belt in the aviation industry, starting in South Florida just out of college and later in New Orleans, where he helped manage the airport during Hurricane Katrina. He's now landed at Long Beach Airport, where he took over the management in late February, beating out 46 other applicants. While other airports such Los Angeles International Airport are seeing fewer passengers, Long Beach held steady in 2008 with 3 million passengers serviced. Rodriguez said the airport is very healthy, but he's got a lot on his plate, including a threat from JetBlue, the airport's largest carrier, to leave unless improvements are made soon to its cramped and temporary facilities. Of more personal concern these days is how to sleep on a plane. Rodriguez jets back and forth every other weekend to Houston to visit his new wife, also an airport executive. Rodriguez sat down with the Business Journal to discuss all this, as well as his upbringing as the son of Cuban immigrants who left their homeland with nothing following the revolution.

Question: Have you always liked airplanes?

Answer: Oh, yes. I grew up in an age when it was considered elegant to fly and remember how romanticized it was. I remember as a kid going to Miami's airport to watch the planes take off. People on weekends would park their car right near the fence around the airfield and just watch planes, many international carriers, take off and land.

Q: How has the transition from New Orleans to Long Beach gone for you?

A: I rented a place in Long Beach, and will be looking for a permanent home here. I never thought I would leave New Orleans. I was recruited to come over here, and everybody I talked to had the best interest of the community at heart. That sold me.

Q: But what about the L.A. traffic?

A: Oh, it's astronomically different than New Orleans. Rush hour in New Orleans just means you can't go 75 miles an hour.

Q: I understand your wife is in the same business as you.

A: I'm in my second marriage. This past November, I married Monica Newhouse, who is assistant director of the Houston Airport Systems.

Q: How does that work?

A: We fly back and forth every weekend.

Q: What about your first marriage?

A: From my first marriage, I have two teenage sons, ages 16 and 17, and they live in Palm Beach with their mom.

Q: How often do you get to see your kids?

A: It's tough. We keep in touch every day on the phone and once every two months, I'll fly and go see them. They usually spend their summer vacations with me, and it's going to be great because this summer will be their first in California.

Q: Tell me about your upbringing.

A: I'm really the product of a revolution, because both my mom and my dad are Cuban and left as Fidel Castro rose to power. My mom at one time worked for the government of Cuba, but after she had several meetings with Castro and Ernesto "Che" Guevara decided it wasn't her cup of tea. She ended up in New York where she met my dad, who had emigrated for the same reasons, and, voila, here I am.

Q: Are your parents the most influential people in your life?

A: (Yes.) It's interesting to me how they went from having a stable life in Cuba to having nothing when they came over here, and building that back up. My mother was an attorney in Cuba, and later on in life went back to law school and graduated the same day I did from engineering school.

Q: Where were you born?

A: New York City. I spent many summers there, but the majority of my formative years were in Miami. I ended up going to high school and college there.

Q: Is your family still in Miami?

A: I have a sister who's a clinical psychologist in Miami and married to a film producer who works on Spanish-language soap operas. My parents are alive and in their 80s.

Q: President Obama has relaxed some restrictions on visiting Cuba. Would you visit?

A: Absolutely, I would consider it. I've never been there. I'd love to take my family and show my sons where their family came from.

Q: What do you think about L.A. and its huge Latino population?

A: It's really diverse here and that was a huge selling point. I feel more at home here, and since I love Latino culture and history, I am looking forward to exploring all the different types of foods and ethnic neighborhoods once I get more time.

Q: How did you get your start in aviation?

A: I started working directly in aviation after college. I participated in a program at Fort Lauderdale International Airport that got my foot in the door and allowed me to start with planning and designing developments.

Q: How did you end up in New Orleans?

A: I arrived in New Orleans in 2003 to oversee the airport's projects as deputy director of planning and development, and rebuilt the airfield in less than two years at the cost of $180 million. We were able to get federal funding to raise the levees nearby by 6 feet. That was completed a month ahead of schedule and Katrina hit three days later.

Q: Talk about great timing.

A: The water came within a foot of overtopping the levees. Everyone was saying "You're a genius" when it was really dumb luck. We were pretty fortunate and that put us in a spot to accommodate the 30,000 people we evacuated out during the first three days after the storm hit.

Q: Were you personally affected?

A: I lost my home in the hurricane and had to live in my office for two months and across the street in the Hilton for another month. Then, 187 airport employees, including myself, who had lost our homes, lived for almost two years in a FEMA trailer park on the north side of the airport until we could all get back on our feet. We became like a family.

Q: How did the airport recover?

A: Keeping the airport open was a symbolic gesture that New Orleans is still there, the world hadn't ended and we were going to get back on our feet. It took about two years, though, and $27 million to repair all the damage, which we got from insurance companies and FEMA.

Q: What are your plans for the Long Beach airport?

A: We are looking at creating a new parking garage, replacement of rooms where people wait for boarding and consolidating security checkpoints. Right now we are planning how to schedule those projects, what the size of each project should be and how much the airport can afford.

Q: What about the threat of JetBlue to move their West Coast hub unless improvements are made to their facilities, which are temporary?

A: I have been in this business long enough to know that airlines are always exploring different options. (But) they are in a very, very strong position here with high passenger counts either, because setting up that infrastructure can be costly. I'm going to meet with (Chief Executive) Dave Barger this month and we're working hand in hand to reach a feasible solution.

Q: Do you have a certain philosophy you live by?

A: There are two basic principles I need to follow: I need to be able to look at myself in the mirror in the morning and I need to be able to sleep well at night.

Q: Do you have any time for hobbies?

A: I don't have time. I love spending time with my wife. I spend a lot of time up in the air. So I guess one of my hobbies is trying to figure out how to sleep on an airplane. Those neck pillows kinda do the trick, but I'm still working on it.

Mario Rodriguez

Title: Director

Organization: Long Beach Airport

Born: 1965; New York

Education: B.A., civil engineering, University of Miami

Career Turning Point: Taking job of deputy director of Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport and handling Hurricane Katrina disaster

Most Influential People: Parents who left Cuba with almost nothing after the Cuban Revolution

Personal: Lives in Long Beach; travels every other weekend to see his wife, Monica Newhouse, who manages airports in Houston; has two teenage sons from a previous marriage

Hobbies: Says he doesn't have time, but is enjoying varied cuisines in Los Angeles area

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