As a doctor, Kathleen C. Hittner focuses on healing; as a community leader, she can bring people with different agendas together.
Hittner is the state’s new state Health Insurance Commissioner and she is stepping down as chair of the board of the Rhode Island Airport Corporation (RIAC). It’s a position she held for the last seven tumultuous years; when the community was divided over a longer runway at the airport; when there was a change in personnel and when the economy took a nosedive along with airline passenger traffic.
On Friday night, many of those who sat on opposite sides honored the woman who brought them together at a reception at the North Star Aviation facility on Airport Road. City Council members, who still raise issues about the airport, raised their glasses to toast her.
“She took it to the next level, and it isn’t easy to get to the next level,” said Governor Lincoln Chafee.
He spoke of Hittner’s ability to resolve conflict and bring people to a consensus. Hittner has had a career in medical administration. She served as chief of anesthesiology at two hospitals before serving as president of Miriam Hospital from 2000 to 2009. She served as senior vice president of community health for Lifespan.
Chafee recalled how he, Hittner and a Rhode Island delegation visited jetBlue headquarters on Long Island, N.Y. Their goal was to bring the airline to Green as part of the effort to enhance service and reverse the downward spiral in passenger traffic.
The mission was a success. Today, as RIAC President and CEO Kelly Fredericks observed, jetBlue planes are flying out of Green at near-full capacity. The presence of the airline has also helped reverse the loss in traffic for the first time in eight years. The airport recorded 3.8 million passengers for 2013, an increase of 4.1 percent from 2012. Air cargo was also dramatically up.
Hittner was no stranger to Mayor Scott Avedisian when she was appointed to serve on the RIAC board 11 years ago. Hittner and her husband Barry live on Warwick Neck and Avedisian felt she had a good understanding of the city’s concerns and could balance them with plans to expand the airport.
“I am pleased to be here and thank you for your leadership,” he said.
He went on to say there were occasions where the city and the airport couldn’t see eye to eye. People left meetings angry and hope of reaching a consensus was dim. In those cases, he said, Hittner was always committed to coming back and to listen and talk again.
Senator Jack Reed praised the contributions Hittner and her husband, who served as the state director of business regulations, have made to the state. He called Dr. Hittner a leader and an inspiration; a woman of personal integrity and professional excellence.
Congressman James Langevin congratulated Hittner and RIAC for “the best airport system in the country,” which will serve to bolster the economy. Also recognizing her for her contributions was Warwick Senator William Walaska.
When it was her turn to address the gathering, Hittner confided that she was “really frightened” that people wouldn’t get along when she assumed her role as chairwoman.
“I have loved doing this,” Hittner said, thanking the “tremendous” RIAC staff.
She forecast a bright future for Green with additional service and increased passenger traffic and cargo.
After her remarks, Hittner said she would have liked to see through airport projects, including the extension of the main runway in December of 2017.
But her contribution won’t go unnoticed. Winslow Park that will be relocated to the Lake Shore Drive neighborhood so as to allow for the longer runway is to be named the Dr. Kathleen C. Hittner Sports Complex at Winslow Park. Relocation of the softball and soccer fields that make up the park was critical to reaching an agreement for the City Council to drop a legal challenge of Federal Aviation Administration approval of the extended runway.