From National Air Transportation Association:
Let me begin with a cordial reminder to all my airport manager friends that this commentary is not about you. You know who you are – and aviation businesses need more people like you helping us build a strong air transportation system. But for the rest of you, this article’s headline reflects our collective concern that, frankly, we don’t seem to be on the same team.
Jack Welch, GE’s iconic chairman for over 20 years, was famous for a management philosophy that encouraged GE managers to fire one subordinate out of ten every year. Donald Trump has taken his “You’re fired!” message and turned it into a virtual trademark. Suffice it to say, the private sector is filled with managers who know how to use a pink slip. The public sector is a different story.
Every airport is unique, but all management problems fall under common headings – what I call the three perils of unprofessionalism: a Paucity of Purpose, Pretend Partnerships, and Procedural Pettiness. Sometimes these management flaws stem from a confused political structure or an airport commission that has an agenda all its own. In a few cases, the airport manager is as much a victim as the aviation businesses that are his tenants. But most managers have the power and independence to set their own course — sometimes with disastrous results.
Their greatest mistake is to simply misunderstand what their job is and how it relates to the fundamental purpose of a public airport. Airports exist (and justly get billions of dollars in federal grants) in order to promote the economic well-being of their community. They generate jobs, create wealth, support the delivery of a wide variety of critical services, improve the economic efficiency of virtually every local enterprise, and bring direct and indirect benefits to the entire citizenry.
They are not just a big piece of real estate with runways, hangars, tenants, and the occasional airplane taking off. They are not merely places to board an airliner. They are not just a ‘department’ of the sponsoring political unit. They are not a clubhouse for a collection of aircraft owners. They are not just a big interchange and parking lot that connects cars with highways in the sky.
They are much more. Airports are most communities’ largest and most valuable public investment – the one that can (or should) play the biggest role in promoting long-lasting economic development and growth in the surrounding region. Your airport is your town’s most important connection to the world!
Many airport managers can’t see this big picture. For them, it’s just a question of keeping the political higher-ups off their backs, keeping the grass mowed and the snow plowed, and learning to say “no” to anything that looks like a new idea. They see their job as a caretaker – and the thought of taking any steps in a new direction is terrifying. Others are just real estate managers, like superintendants of a big shopping mall, whose job is to collect rents, maintain security, and paint the lines in the parking lot. These managers don’t understand the many facets of aviation and simply don’t belong at an airport.
Another critical test of a good airport manager is in the partnerships he or she creates. Each manager, like the airport itself, sits at the center of scores of external relationships that collectively add value to the airport and its users. Foremost among these potential partners are the aviation businesses at the airport. The manager’s job is to work with these companies to foster economic activity at the airport – not to just send them a bill every month.
Other partnerships can be just as important – with the state and federal aviation funding entities, with Congress, ATC providers, aviation organizations, economic development officials, hospitals, universities, major corporations, local entrepreneurs, and many, many more. Unfortunately, some airport managers only give lip service to these potential partners. For them, it is all about their career, their compensation package, and their little empire. An effective manager leverages his resources through the creation of true public-private partnerships. More importantly, he knows that a successful airport needs successful and profitable aviation partners. Without them, it’s hard to justify his salary.
Perhaps the greatest peril an airport faces is the threat of becoming a bureaucracy, and only a good manager can prevent this from happening. It’s the curse of the public sector, of course, and aviation endures more than its share with the mind-numbing organizational inefficiencies at many of the federal agencies with whom we interact, but many great airports are run with the kind of customer-friendly policies and procedures that can cut through miles of red tape. Sadly, however, many airport managers succumb to the temptations of bureaucracy and turn into petty tyrants. The symptoms are familiar: lots of unproductive meetings, endless delays, piles of paperwork, and a dearth of decision-making. These managers don’t really manage at all, they just shuffle.
So take out a report card and grade your airport manager. Does he or she understand the true scope of the job and have a vision to match it? Does the airport build partnerships that produce results – and are they working to increase economic activity and promote profitable enterprises in and around the airport? Does the airport manager understand that bureaucracies stifle innovation, creativity, and growth? If not, it’s time for an engine overhaul at your airport.
Firing an airport manager is an art unto itself, but if properly accomplished, it may be the best thing that ever happened at your airport. A proactive manager who understands his mission and is willing to build effective, productive partnerships with those who want to help can transform any airport. All it takes is finding the right man or woman and persuading the airport community that it’s time for a change.
Every airport, of course, has its own procedures and political paths that determine how and when a manager is replaced. It’s usually best to present a convincing case for change, rather than attack the incumbent’s shortcomings. Building an alliance of disaffected aviation interests and supportive business groups is a good first step, followed by an independent effort to identify some attractive new candidates for the position. A broad review of the airports financial position and prospects can provide further arguments for a change of leadership. Remember that you’re entitled to see all relevant airport documents.
After you’ve built your alliance, found some candidates, and created a plan of attack, move quickly to build public support for your campaign. Emphasize how valuable the airport is and how much more it could bring to your community, if only it was well managed. Show how the existing bureaucracy is limiting investment and innovation at the airport. Present a new vision of your airport as an engine of growth for your region.
If you are successful and can replace a worn out manager with a new, energetic and visionary leader, your airport can achieve its real potential, giving the businesses and leaders of your home town new opportunities for expansion, innovation, and job development. If that’s the kind of change your airport needs, grab the bull by the horns and go for it, before it’s too late.