Assessing the Modern Airport Executive

Mel Bakersfeld was the person that exposed me to the field of airport management. As the leader of an airport located in the Midwest, Bakersfeld exhibited several dominate leadership traits. He consistently demonstrated a passion for his job and had a...


Mel Bakersfeld was the person that exposed me to the field of airport management. As the leader of an airport located in the Midwest, Bakersfeld exhibited several dominate leadership traits. He consistently demonstrated a passion for his job and had a great understanding of the technical skills of airport management. More importantly, Bakersfeld had the ability to make critical decisions during a major airport crisis.

Many of you may be scratching your head and asking, “Where have I heard that name before?” Mel Bakersfeld was the fictional airport manager in the movie, “Airport”. In the 1970 drama, Bakersfeld, played by Burt Lancaster, navigated several crises in an effort to keep an airport runway open during a crippling snowstorm so that a stricken aircraft could make an emergency landing.

New challenges

While Bakersfeld demonstrated strong technical competencies, additional leadership traits are required to meet the challenges of this decade. Managing today’s airport in the post-airline deregulation era, post-9/11, and amidst the highly charged political era is more complex, and makes decisionmaking much more complicated than in the past.

What leadership skills are required to successfully lead a modern day airport? As I reflect on the ways that Bakersfeld handled his situation, I begin to compare them with the necessary skills to manage today’s airport enterprises.

Leadership skills can be divided into two categories. Hard skills are technical competencies that are primarily obtained through formal education and training. Examples of hard skills are financial accounting, airport operations, and environmental management. The successful completion of a formal education or recognized certification program, such as the A.A.E. accreditation through the American Association of Airport Executives, provides the basic knowledge for becoming a successful airport manager.

Soft skills are higher level qualities, character traits, and behaviors that research indicates are also critical to being an effective leader. While hard skills can be learned, soft skills are developed through experience.

The soft skills required for the modern airport executive include: vision, strategic thinking, people skills, consensus building, and public relations.

Traits of success

The following leadership traits are critical in meeting the challenges facing today’s airports.

The successful airport leader must have strong business acumen for many of the critical decisions facing airports that are financial in nature.

  • What is the cost/benefit associated with a proposed project?
  • How do revenue streams of the two proposals compare?
  • What are the long-term costs of the programs under consideration?
  • How long will it take to amortize the construction costs?

These are only a few of the questions that can only be evaluated by having a broad range of skills in financial analysis.

Today’s leaders must be able to understand the financial implications associated with decisions made at an airport. These could take the form of real estate agreements, analysis of a concession proposal, or a bond financing transaction. A deep understanding of finance is not required; however, it is important to have a grasp of what various financial analyses indicate.

In addition, real estate development has become a major airport activity. Understanding the development process provides knowledge that can lead to better decisions. Knowing the process helps the airport executive understand the challenges being faced by a developer seeking to do business with the airport.

Airports will continue to develop new facilities to replace old ones. Additionally, a goal of most airports is to develop existing vacant land to higher and better use. Whether the airport or the private sector is the developer, understanding the phases of the development process will be of great value in the future.

Defining the vision

This content continues onto the next page...

We Recommend