Robert W. Moorman examines what it takes to become an effective airport manager, an occupation that requires a person with multiple skills, flexibility and endless patience.

An airport chief executive officer or general manager is, in effect, a mayor of a city filled with aircraft of varying size and ancillary businesses to support the burgeoning enterprise. These executives oversee the airport’s daily operations, which can range from supervising personnel, route planning and marketing to monitoring expenditures, infrastructure and real estate development, security and enforcement of FAA rules and regulations.

A pitchman to airlines for new route service one day and a budget briefer to the regional authority the next is not uncommon. Adaptable and innovative are appropriate adjectives for an airport manager.

In recent years, due to the increase in federal regulations, particularly in the areas of security and the environment, the airport manager’s responsibilities have expanded exponentially. Salaries are good, particularly at larger airports, but the work day is long and challenging. It’s not uncommon for the airport manager to work on major holidays.

Prospective airport managers these days are likely to first obtain the necessary college education on subjects they will encounter during their airport career. The candidate is likely to start in one of the airport’s departments and work their way up. Some employers, be they cities or regional authorities, which manage transportation entities, require prospective airport managers to have, or obtain their Certified Member (CM) accreditation and the Accredited Airport Executive (AAE) certification from the American Association of Airport Executives (AAAE) or the Airport Management Professional Accreditation Program (AMPAP) certification offered by the Airports Council International World before being hired.

Even with numerous avenues available to prospective airport managers “there is no clear path to becoming an airport CEO,” said Spencer Dickerson, senior executive vice president for Global Operations and Secretary to the AAAE Board of Directors. Economic development and utilizing the airport facilities, as an economic catalyst for the community is now a high priority as is air service development.

Airports have always wanted to offer customers more air service. But the focus on air service development is now much stronger because of the economic benefit the airport provides the region in which it is located, said several airport managers.

Changing Priorities

The basic mission of an airport has changed dramatically. For many years, airports were considered a public utility, which provided domestic and international air transportation. They were often managed by ex-military officers who were pilots or base commanders. Then came the engineer-trained airport manager and the emphasis shifted to the operations side of the airport. Airports today are self-supporting, money making businesses and integral partners of a city or region committed to growth.

Some people get into airport business after attending a university, while others gravitate to airport management from other disciplines, such as engineering, architecture or piloting.

The University of North Dakota, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Southern Illinois University, Ohio State University, Arizona State University and Florida Institute of Technology are among the schools in North America that offer airport management programs.

In Europe, there are several schools that offer airport management courses. City, University of London, which has been offering MSc courses for aviation professionals since 1998, unveiled in 2017 an MSc Airport Management Course. The MSc Airport program is a post-graduate academic degree offered for airport managers to advance their careers, according to Capt. Tilmann Gabriel, director of MSc Aviation Management Programs.

“It is important to note that it does not require a Bachelor degree to enter,” said Gabriel. But the individual must be currently employed in the aviation industry and hold ICAO licenses or diplomas from ACI World, IATA or ICAO. The University of London also offers the on-site phase for each module at its facilities in Dubai and Frankfurt. “Airports today are a mall with an attached runway,” continued Gabriel. “On the other hand, airports have become a critical infrastructure requirement for the GDP growth of regions… To be able to handle the strategic growth of an airport is one of the key aspects of this new MSc.”

Managers’ Views

CAT interviewed several airport executives on what it takes to become an airport manager.

“We require new hires to get their CM (certified member) accreditation, which is the first phase of the AAAE’s AAE accreditation” for airport executives, said Bonnie Allin, president and CEO of Tucson Airport Authority.

Allin’s entire career has been in aviation management. Her degree is in finance “because whatever area I worked in always comes back to the numbers,” she said.

Utilizing the airport as an economic catalyst for the community “is now a high priority as is air service development,” said Allin. Airports have always wanted to offer more air service. “But the focus on air service development now is much stronger because of the economic development in the region in which the airport is located.”

Larry Krauter, CEO of Spokane International Airport, took the academic route to airport management because he knew from an early age what he wanted out of life. Krauter is a graduate of Ohio State University’s airport management program. From college, Krauter first worked as an airport planner for Columbus, Ohio’s division of airports. Asked what airport authorities or cities look for in airport manager candidates, Krauter said he didn’t proscribe to any particular formula toward eventually running an airport. “There are a lot of allied professions, which, while not directly related to airport management, help the potential airport professional.”

Krauter’s CEO counterpart at the Denver International Airport, Kim Day, is an architect by training. Louis Miller, the former head of Atlanta-Hartsfield Jackson International Airport and Tampa International Airport before that, is an accountant by training.

Since 2002, Sky Harbor International Airport has had a management development program with Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. The program provides an opportunity for “all aviation employees, no matter what level of position, to obtain a baseline education about the aviation industry and the business side of airport operations,” according to Janice Pitts, Human Resources Supervisor. Employees apply for enrollment to Embry-Riddle, if accepted, students can earn up to 18 undergraduate college credits toward a degree. The classes are available to City of Phoenix Aviation Department employees.

Phoenix Sky Harbor campus is part of the worldwide division of Embry-Riddle, which has over 100 sites throughout the world, according to Nancy J. Zeman, Campus director, Phoenix Sky Harbor Campus, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University Worldwide.

James E. Bennett, director of Aviation Services, City of Phoenix detailed succinctly how the job of airport manager has changed over the years: “The job requires the ability to work with various federal, state and local agencies; the ability to maintain and grow community relations; ability to develop effective air service programs and adapt to the changing business climate.”

In addition, he said, the job requires “awareness of the broad array of environmental and sustainability issues; knowledge of how to incorporate opportunities for small business; knowledge of long-term financial planning; and a good understanding of current technologies in the industry.”

Robert Olislagers, executive director of Centennial Airport outside of Denver, holds an undergraduate and masters degree in anthropology. Yet he gravitated toward airport management because of a life-long love of aviation.

Olislagers began his aviation career at a small airport near Buffalo, New York. From there he interned at Buffalo International before traversing the country to Bakersfield, California Municipal Airport, where he spent seven years. Then it was on to McClellan-Palomar Airport in Carlsbad for three years. From there, he managed the San Bernardino International Airport for five years before settling at Centennial, one of the busier business aircraft airports in the US.

“It was the school of hard knocks,” Olislagers remembered. He credits his counterparts at the FAA Pacific Region and the Southwest chapter of AAAE for helping him learn his craft. “The advantage of not having gone to an airport management school is that I had to think outside of the box, which I still do today,” he said.

Airports are looking for candidates with excellent communications and consensus building skills, people who understand the air transportation business and how it links with other forms of transportation. Many of today’s airports are multi-modal facilities.

A textbook example of the multi-modal concept is the Columbus Ohio Airport Authority (CRAA) which runs the John Glenn Columbus International Airport, Rickenbacker International Airport, Bolton Field Airport, the Rickenbacker Inland Port and Foreign Trade Zone No. 138.

Proactive and Innovative

Marily Mora, president and CEO of the Reno-Tahoe Airport Authority (RTAA), who has 28 years of airport management experience, said it is important for airport professionals to obtain the AAAE certification early on. The accreditation shows employers that the candidate has the foundational knowledge to one day becoming an airport manager.

Mora offered the following tip for future airport managers: “Young people should take advantage of a growth opportunity when it presents itself, even if the job doesn’t offer you more pay at the time.”

She should know. Her opportunity for advancement came early in her career while working at the Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport. Ralph Tonseth, then director of Aviation for the airport offered her a switch from being the deputy director of Business Development to becoming interim deputy director of Planning, Engineering and Environmental Services. “This interim opportunity changed my career direction,” she said.

Mora said airport manager candidates must be proactive. “If you’re interested in becoming a top-level person at an airport, you need to let your boss know,” she said. “You can’t be silent and expect someone to tap you on the shoulder.”

Mora is responsible for leading and directing the Reno-Tahoe International Airport (RNO), and the Reno-Stead Airport (RTS), with an operating budget of $46 million.

Kelly Johnson’s journey to heading the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport began in the finance department for the city of Fayetteville. Her financial background helped propel her to become the assistant airport director at Northwest when the former assistant director left suddenly.

“Today, there seems to be a move toward hiring people with a business mindset as opposed to someone being an aviation person,” said Johnson, who wants to see schools place more emphasis on “revenue generation and air service development.”

Prospective or current airport managers should stay current with what is happening in the industry. Networking is a valuable tool of airport management, she added.

Having some background in airport planning is a valuable asset to the job, airport managers told CAT.

Today’s airport manager must be politically astute with local and state leaders and be vigilant in monitoring government initiatives that could affect various aspects of the airport business.

One politically related concern of the airport management community concerns a few elements of President Donald Trump’s tax reform plan. Many airports use tax-exempt private activity bonds to finance airport projects presently. The airport is also allowed to obtain an advanced refund on those tax-exempt bonds to help retire debt related to those projects. Yet in the already-passed US House version of the tax reform legislation, both the tax-exempt bonds and refund portions would be axed. Which, if passed into law, would cost US airports hundreds of millions of dollars more in paying for airport projects, according to AAAE. [Editor’s note: A final vote on the tax legislation had not been held as of this writing.]

Several airport managers said they favor continuing education programs for all airport employees, not just top officials. These programs are necessary to adapt to rapid and sometimes disruptive changes at the airport.

The Reno-Tahoe Airport Authority has an ongoing continuing education program as part of its succession plan because of the significant turnover at the airport. The in-house training program, dubbed Airport Authority University, brings in trainers from outside of the organization to train employees in varying disciplines. The authority provides tuition reimbursement and a scholarship program for employees. Each year, the goal is to have each employee undergo 20 hours of training.

While the job of airport CEO is considered a plumb occupation in the air transportation field, the job is very demanding, requiring the top officer to bring his or her A-game every day.

Spokane’s Krauter may have said it best: “I am convinced that this profession is one of the most intellectually demanding positions that exist. The different demands placed on the airport manager at any given moment are tremendous. It is also one of the more rewarding.”

The Seal of Approval

Having a college degree in airport management or building practical experience by working at an airport is not a guarantee to securing a top job in this chosen field. Yet two major aviation organizations, the American Association of Airport Executives (AAAE) and Montreal-based Airports Council International (ACI) World, have accredited programs, which grease the skids for future airport CEOs/managers.

AAAE’s Certified Member (CM) and the Accredited Airport Executive (AAE) certification programs provide a good foundation for future airport managers. The CM program is one part of the three-part AAE program.

Established in the late 1950s, the AAE accreditation program “was created by airport executives for airport executives,” said Spencer Dickerson, senior executive vice president for Global Operations and Secretary to the AAAE Board of Directors. “It is the gold standard for the airport management profession.”

The three-part AAE program involves passing a comprehensive exam, which covers accounting, zoning, finance, federal regulations, environmental issues, planning, general management and engineering.

Students also must write a management paper and a written exam. The last element of the accreditation program is a mock, yet intensive, 2-3-hour job interview. Once the candidate successfully completes all test phases, he/she may use the AAE initials after their name.

ACI World provides its members several airport management related courses. Of particular interest is the Airport Management Professional Accreditation Program (AMPAP), consisting of six courses - four mandatory and two electives - which must be completed within a three-year period.

ACI World director general Angela Gittens and ICAO Secretary General Dr. Fang Liu oversee the jointly developed program, which is governed by a steering committee. Every year, the committee reviews the program curriculum to determine if it is current with emerging trends.

Of the 123 graduates of AMPAP in 2016, 13% went on to become CEOs/general managers, said Kevin Caron, head of Global Training, ACI World. 12% became deputy CEOs/vice presidents, 16% directors and 59% section managers.

ACI World also offers a leadership program in conjunction with John Molson School of Business at Concordia University in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. In addition, ACI offers an airport financial management program, which is made up of three courses: airport revenue generation, airport financial management and airport user charges.

Asked what advice he would offer prospective airport managers, Caron said: “My advice is to be forward looking and keep an eye on where the airport and aviation industry are going in terms of growth, innovations (aviation related and not) and disruptive technologies. I also recommend that students develop a strong business acumen.”

Airport managers of today must be more innovative, said Caron. Consider the ongoing move internationally to make airports an integral part of the community by blending it with a multi-modal facility. - Robert W. Moorman

Published in CAT issue 1/2018