The first month of the COVID-19 pandemic, when air travel came to an immediate standstill, was also Nicholas Hinchley’s first month at the helm of the Metropolitan Airports Commission’s finances.
The Waseca native had spent more than seven years as the manager of accounting and finances for MAC, the authority that operates the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport and six other Twin Cities airports. Hinchley was named MAC’s interim director of finance in April 2020.
“It was extremely stressful,” Hinchley recalled his first month in the new role.
As positivity rates for COVID-19 exploded in the United States that month, increasing exponentially by the week, airports experienced a 95% drop in passengers, the largest decline in industry history. This meant a similar drop in revenue.
“No one had experienced that before,” he said. “It was more significant than anything anybody could have predicted.”
After a hiring freeze was lifted in February, Hinchley went through a two-month hiring process that involved a national search for candidates before he was permanently named to the role last month.
“I was very, very happy, and very grateful to have gotten it,” he said, recalling that decision. “It probably helps that I was doing the job for almost a year already. That definitely didn’t hurt.”
Born and raised in Waseca, Hinchley got his first job delivering the Waseca County News when he was 12 or 13. He then started working for Yellow Mushroom Pizza.
Later, in high school, Hinchley learned how to program and in his spare time, he built computers.
“I saw it as something fun to do,” he recalled, “not necessarily something that I wanted to do as a career or a job.”
High school was also where Hinchley took his first accounting class, where he decided that was what he wanted to pursue at Minnesota State University Mankato. He liked the constant learning aspect inherent in accounting, from figuring out firsthand how different companies operate, to how they function in relation to the world outside the company. He never changed course.
While working at his first accounting job, Hinchley found he had an interest in tackling financial fraud.
“I wanted to look for more of a niche area, and it was growing in popularity at the time,” he said. “It’s very interesting when you get into it and start to learn about the social and human behavior that goes into it, why people do it and how they rationalize and justify it.”
Hinchley’s credentials as a certified fraud examiner were put to use, once while dealing with a company’s manager who was accepting gifts and another time with a a person who volunteered to help a couple out with their bookkeeping, only to siphon off money from the couple’s business.
“They were eventually caught, and I was brought in to try to evaluate how much the losses were. It almost bankrupted them at a time. As far as I know, they’re still around, so I think they were able to recover some of the funds, and are still in business.”
Hinchley then went to work for a Northwest Airlines subsidiary called the MLP Inc. But after five years as the assistant controller, Delta relocated the office to Atlanta. He was offered the opportunity to move there to continue at his job, but opted to stay in Minnesota instead.
“I didn’t really have an interest in moving to Atlanta. It’s not really somewhere that I wanted to live.”
A few months later, the position for an accounting and finance manager at the MAC opened up. More than seven years later, Hinchley now oversees MAC’s operating budget that exceeds $300 million and a seven-year capital improvement program budget that exceeds $2 billion.
When COVID-19 was first sweeping through the United States, emptying airports, Hinchley’s biggest worry was that such a devastating loss in revenue would make it impossible to maintain staff at current levels. But they were able to avoid that, largely due to the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act.
“That wasn’t why we kept people. We wanted to do that anyway, and worked hard to do that and cut elsewhere,” he said.
His biggest worry now has to do with infrastructure. Steep losses in revenue have meant significant postponements in construction projects, which are crucial for meeting the needs of the traveling public.
“We’re not sure when we’ll catch up with that,” he said. He added that industry insiders are not anticipating air traffic to return to pre-pandemic levels until 2024 or later.
Despite challenges, though, Hinchley suspects that with increasing vaccination rates, loosening COVID restrictions, and declining COVID positivity rates, the worst is behind him.
“I’m hopeful for a good summer, and then after that, a continued recovery, hopefully sooner than we originally expected,” he said. “I think we’re in for better days here.”