Assessing the Modern Airport Executive

Mel Bakersfield 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

One of the keys to successfully managing an aviation asset is to define the vision for the organization. The importance of having a vision cannot be overstated. Visioning is important to the stakeholder who may have millions invested in the airport.

If the stakeholder is to remain loyal and committed, he or she needs to know what’s at stake. A well-defined vision gives employees a sense of direction and helps establish organizational culture. It also forms the basis for demanding exceptional performance and building a cohesive team. 

Acceptance of a vision statement also encourages policymakers to view the organization from a long-term perspective. 

Finally, a vision is absolutely critical to customer service. The vision statement provides the description of the expected travel experience and provides measures for quality customer service.   

Strategic leadership

Developing the vision is one thing, but leading the organization toward the vision is just as important. Strategic thinking is crucial to achieving the vision.

The airline industry witnessed major changes over the past ten years. Most of the changes involved airline reductions and extremely difficult economic conditions . The modern day airport executive  has to be attune to future trends and economic conditions.  Strategic decision-making keeps organization on course.  Contingency planning provides the flexibility to anticipate uncertainty and implement alternative strategies during periods of uncertainty. 

Theodore Roosevelt said, “The most important single ingredient in the formula of success is knowing how to get along with people.”  Many experts believe leadership success is directly related to one’s ability to develop business relationships. Strong people skills are the way to develop those relationships.  

The ability to relate to people is at the heart of every activity involved in leading an airport organization. Employee relations, contract negotiations, team building, public relations, and policymaking are all are relationship-driven.  People skills can be defined as the inventory of personality traits that enable one to develop  trusting and productive relations with others. 

Common traits associated with being a people person include empathy, compassion, caring, integrity, listening skills and a sense humor. Given the many stakeholders, a leader has to effectively interact with all types of people. Relationships are at the heart of every aspect of a complex airport organization.

Consensus building involves the ability to bring various interests together in order to reach a decision each party can support. 

Read the local newspaper consistently and you will find airports are the focal point of numerous policy debates, many of which are contentious. Successful consensus building and good people skills go hand-in-hand.  The formula for consensus-building is listening, understanding various viewpoints, identifying  creative solutions, and  focusing  on commonalities rather than differences.

Given the high-stakes nature of decisions being made airports, consensus can be difficult to achieve.  Unlike negotiations where the goal is to obtain the best possible outcome for one party, consensus is achieved when everyone agrees to the solution. 

Dealing with the media

One of the newer challenges facing all public officials is coping with the news media. The 24-hour news coverage and the Internet have dramatically changed the landscape of public relations. There are literally hundreds of different outlets for obtaining news and information   airports. 

Having the ability to control the message has a huge impact on how the organization is perceived.  We are in an era where perceptions mean everything to the success of the organization. It’s incumbent for today’s airport leader to have the skills to be credible and competent when communicating in public.  

Good public relations mean having a strategy for maintaining positive relations with the public. The airport executive sets the tone in this critical area of the business.  

There are a whole host of issues that can embroil the airport organization in a political war. Airports by their very nature are political organizations. Being politically savvy in working through issues is a must. Noise, contracting, concessions, airport expansion, and air service development are just a few of the thorny issues that can test the political skills of any airport leader. To be successful today, airport executives be able to effectively operate within the political process. 

The above mentioned skills do not substitute for formal training and experience, but the skills highlighted in this article are emerging in importance for airport executive. Technical competencies, particularly in the financial and real estate development arena are increasingly important. Leadership in today’s environment is about cultivating quality relationships, having a clear picture of what the future organization looks like, thinking strategically about the organization, and being politically  aware. These are the keys to success in the future. 

About the Author

Kenneth Gwyn | Assistant Director of Aviation

Assistant Director of Aviation, Dallas Airport System