AAE Credential: A Career Changer?

Dec. 28, 2016
Airport professionals looking to advance their careers can look at A.A.E. credentials as a path to success, but what do you need to know before pursuing it?

An interesting factoid emerged as profiles were being written for the 2016 Airport Business 40 Under 40 winners: eight of them had the Accredited Airport Executives (A.A.E.) credential. Created by the American Association of Airport Executives (AAAE) in 1954, the credential is a designation earned by those who have demonstrated their ability to handle the responsibilities of airport management.

Spencer Dickerson, AAAE’s senior executive vice president, global operations, said the program was a direct result of military airports turning into civilian facilities after World War II. “The industry needed professional managers as those airports began to grow,” he said. “As a result, the program has evolved into a well-respected and recognized accreditation program in airport management.”

There’s no federal, state or local requirements for airport managers, said Dickerson. “But many airports that list management jobs now require applicants to have the A.A.E. credential,” he said.

Earning an A.A.E. is a three step process: one, taking a 180-question, multiple-choice examination; two, writing a management research paper, case study, proctored essay examination, or submitting proof of an advanced degree; and three, undergoing a final interview with a panel of A.A.E.s. The program can be completed in any order, but the final interview must be the final step. There are no time limits for completing the program.

Typically, people in their 20s and 30s tend to go through the program, said Dickerson. “But we’re also seeing people in their 40s and 50s seeking accreditation because they all see it as part of their tool box that will help them advance in the airport management industry,” he stated.

Paper topics run the gamut, from accounting to zoning, said Dickerson. Past topics covered airport management, safety, security, nonaeronautical revenue, terminal construction and air service development.

There are currently 469 A.A.E.s, and the program averages around 30 new ones a year. Around 13 percent of eligible AAAE members are active A.A.E.s and approximately 35 percent are airport directors or CEOs.

Sarah Demory, airport deputy director of operations and security at Boise Airport (BOI), said that getting the A.A.E credential had always been a goal for her. “But I was a bit intimidated by the process. I received my Master of Science in aviation 10 years ago and this was around the time when AAAE changed the requirement for a management paper,” she said. “I was able to bypass writing a paper, fulfilling that requirement by submitting my master’s theses.”

Demory said she put the process on hold in order to obtain a bit more airport management experience. “I had encouragement from my boss, [Airport Director] Rebecca [Hupp, A.A.E.], who urged me to go for it in 2014,” she said. “We made it a professional goal for 2014. It was due to her encouragement and positive reinforcement that allowed me to take the leap. I was pleasantly surprised because I was well prepared for the final interview.”

Marquez Griffin is the assistant director, airport operations, airfield at Orlando International Airport (MCO). “I started my aviation career at the airlines. I had a great job, but I wasn’t exercising my mind academically, so I switched from the airlines to the airports,” he said. "I went back to school to get my masters degree and educate myself further about aviation.”

Griffin said it took him two years to earn his A.A.E. “When I started with the multiple choice exam, it covered all facets of aviation. I thought I could rely on my existing airport knowledge,” he said. “So I studied for six months, took the test and failed. I then understood the breadth and depth of the knowledge needed.”

So he studied for 12 months, took the exam again and passed. “Because I had my masters degree, I was exempted from the written paper. Six months later, I took my final oral exam and passed, getting my credential in January 2014,” he said.

Griffin said having the A.A.E. credential has had a huge impact on his career. “It increased my aviation knowledge base so I can see how the industry is interrelated. The professional networking opportunities have been invaluable,” he said. “It also exposed me to other A.A.E.s and we have a group where we bounce ideas off each other. And it has made me more marketable, giving me a leg up on the competition.”

On average, it takes about two or three years to complete the program, said Dickerson. “This program is so respected because it’s one that has been developed, monitored and controlled by airport peers. It’s really about peer recognition,” he explained. “It’s a comprehensive program with lots of professional development. It’s also a very good test of airport management knowledge. If you want a career in airports that lasts for decades, this accreditation is way to move up the ladder in management jobs across the country.”

Having the A.A.E. credential establishes you as an elite professional in the airport industry, said Demory. “It confirms and establishes my investment, knowledge and involvement in the industry,” she said. “I encourage others to go for the A.A.E. It’s a very rewarding process personally and professionally that will have lasting benefits.”

The A.A.E. credential is a validation that shows the industry that you know what you’re talking about, said Griffin. “It’s a must for you to consider as you think about your career in airports, because the knowledge base that this program gives is invaluable,” he said. “It gives you a better picture of exactly what it takes to run an airport. It’s one of the most difficult things I’ve done academically, but it’s also the most rewarding.”