Career Spotlight: What I Do In Airport Operations

Career Spotlight: What I Do in Airport Operations

Airports are fascinating in their complexity and efficiency. They're practically self-contained cities with their mammoth infrastructure elements that need to be maintained as perfectly as possible for the comfort and safety of all travellers. And it takes an army of workers to make it all happen.

Photo by Markus Gann (Shutterstock).

To learn a little about the people who work behind the scenes to make airports function, we spoke with Wes McDonald. Wes is an airport operations supervisor in Atlanta, and labors every day to make sure it all runs like clockwork.

Tell us a bit about your current position and how long you've been at it.

My name is Wes McDonald. I am a Senior Airport Operations Supervisor where I oversee the day-to-day operations at the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. The airport is owned and operated by the City of Atlanta. I am in the Department of Aviation, Airport Operations Division. My division is spilt into two units: "Landside" and "Airside."

I was previously with the Airside Unit (four years) which oversees the airfield, ramps, etc. Recently, I was with the Landside Unit (three years) which oversees the terminals, concourses, roadways and properties surrounding the airport. I have just transferred to the Centralised Command and Control Center ("C4") which oversees Emergency Management programs and training, Communications (911 Dispatch), the Emergency Operations Center (EOC) and Mobile Command Vehicle. I have seven years of Airport Operations experience with the City of Atlanta and nearly 12 years of aviation industry experience. I previously worked at the Valdosta Regional Airport in Valdosta, GA and Glasgow International Airport in Scotland during a study abroad semester.

I went to college at Valdosta State University in Valdosta, GA (near the border of FL). My degree is a Bachelor's in Business Management. I am married with one daughter and a son on the way!

What drove you to choose your career path?

I've always been into aviation. My mother is from London and her side of the family lives there so I grew up around aeroplanes. In high school and college I was in the Air Force ROTC program and intended on going in the US Air Force after college. During that time, my interest in aviation grew as I realised the multiple career paths that aviation could offer.

During high school, I hung around my local airport and listened to air traffic through a scanner. I took my dates out there too (what a nerd!). In college, I worked as a line service technician at the local Fixed Based Operator (FBO) in Valdosta, GA where I handled general aviation aircraft and the three commuter flights at the commercial terminal. My job was basically to fuel, wash, and tow aircraft. This is where I became interested in airport management. I learned about Part 139 which is the section of federal regulations that the FAA made for airports to follow. I would help the airport maintenance and fire personnel conduct the airfield inspections and responded to emergencies on the airfield. Since we did not have a "proper" airport operations department, we were the de facto airport operations supervisors.

How did you go about getting your job? What kind of education and experience did you need?

After graduating from college, I looked for jobs in the aviation industry, no matter the path. I came upon an ad for an Airport Operations Agent for the Department of Aviation in Atlanta. This was with the Cargo Operations unit in the Airside Operations Division. I blindly applied for it thinking that I wouldn't stand a chance. I got the call for an interview and drove up to Atlanta. When I was in the waiting room, they gave me a pop-quiz on Federal Regulations Part 139 and Part 77. I failed that test miserably but did fairly well in the interview panel. After I got home, I looked up the answers that I knew I got wrong and emailed them to main interviewer. A few weeks later, I got a phone call offering me the position! Over the next four years, I monitored cargo flights on the city-owned ramps and inspected the busiest runways in the world.

Did you need any licenses or certifications?

The industry standard for Airport Operations is a four year degree, preferably in Aviation Management, Business, Public Administration, etc., and at least two years of experience. Most major airports want more. Some airports (smaller hubs) across the country may not require that much. I've seen postings for jobs that require 5-10 years of experience and some only asking for a high school diploma. It depends on the duties they will be responsible for. Airports can be operated by an authority/commission, government, or private contractor.

To be competitive at most major airports, you will need some sort of certification. The American Association of Airport Executives certifies employees. You can go through basic Airport Operations and Safety Specialist School (ASOS) which is a "crash" course in Airport Operations. Also you can get your Airport Certified Employee (ACE) Certification. This allows you to specialize in operations, security, airfield maintenance, or communications.

The more desirable certifications include the Certified Member (CM) or Accredited Airport Executive (AAE). These require more training and exams. To be an AAE, you will need to write a research paper and sit an interview panel.

In airports where you will be driving heavy trucks or making airfield lighting repairs, you may need your commercial driver's licence or electrician certification. I've even seen job announcements for contractors overseas that require firearms training (for hunting and security) and snow removal experience. You can work in a remote airfield in Alaska, the Port Authority of NY and NJ, a smaller commercial airport such as Valdosta Regional Airport, or your larger hubs like ATL.

What kinds of things do you do beyond what most people see? What do you actually spend the majority of your time doing?

In my most recent job in Landside Operations, we conducted the day-to-day operations inside the terminals, concourses, parking decks, roadways, etc. Operations Supervisors wear many hats. We start the day by conducting quality control walkthroughs with our building management contractor. We meet with the Atlanta Police, Ground Transportation, Airport Security, and Airside Divisions three times a day to discuss the day's activities and pass on any information. We monitor the security checkpoints and coordinate with TSA to keep the lines under control. My office also issues curbside parking, protest and literature distribution permits. We also monitor construction activities and enforce city ordinances.

I can be assisting a passenger find her airline's ticket counter, call in an unattended vehicle on the curbside, throw away a water bottle left on top of the trash can, then have to respond to a heart attack call at the furthest gate from my location. Some of my coworkers have provided CPR before… some have done it several times. Our unit also provides updates to our Public Relations Department and Executives during incidents. Most people don't understand who we are and what we actually do. Depending on the day or shift, you can be very busy or very slow, but never bored. There is always something going on!

What misconceptions do people often have about your job?

We are NOT airline customer service, but we will help you as much as we can. We are NOT the guys on the ramp directing planes into the gate (they are very important though!). Most importantly we are NOT TSA.

What are your average work hours?

Most Operations and Security units operate on a 9 or 10 hour shift. We are a 24 hour, 7 day a week operation. When you have off holidays and weekends, we are working… sometimes overtime!

What personal tips and shortcuts have made your job easier?

I keep my eye on the passenger booking numbers provided by the airlines. It allows us to determine how busy the day may be. I also keep up to date on aviation industry news.

The most challenging thing to know is who to call for different things. It gets tricky so having contacts around the airport will help you out. You don't need to know everything, just where to find it.

What do you do differently from your coworkers or peers in the same profession? What do they do instead?

I like to learn about other airports and how they do things. Information sharing and comparing procedures is vital to improvement. I have visited over half of the public airports in the State of Georgia and several airports across the US and other countries.

On my honeymoon in 2011, I even spent the day shadowing the Saint Maarten Airport Operations Manager. He took me around the terminal facility and we conducted a runway inspection. It was cool being on the "other side of the fence" when others were being blown by jet blast on Maho Beach. By visiting these different airports, I've been able to gain new ideas and see how much we are the same.

Most of my coworkers are avid travellers or aircraft enthusiasts. Some like to forget they work for the airport when travelling (I don't blame them). It's like landscapers having the worst yards in the neighbourhood.

What's the worst part of the job and how do you deal with it?

I have never been a big fan of facility walkthroughs and quality control inspections. It's just because the scoring depends on each person's view. You have to remember that it's very important to have a clean, "opening day fresh" airport for our customers and fellow employees. Our janitorial and maintenance staff are under-appreciated… let's give them a hand.

On a heavier note, I've seen some depressing events too. We've had deaths and major injuries over the years. This is where you have to use your life experience: I talk to others about what I saw and remember that we've also seen happy things too. I've seen marriage proposals, heart attack patients become alert again, and families reuniting.

What's the most enjoyable part of the job?

The best thing about my job is that I get to help people. I've helped a lady with flight anxiety, comforted a wife after the passing of her husband, and translated directions in (bad) French to a Haitian man who had never been outside of Port-au-Prince.

As Hugh Grant said in the movie Love Actually, "Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport." I like to watch the arrivals lobby at the Atlanta Airport -- you'll always get choked up when you see the military returning home.

Some of my favourite things are bumping into friends and celebrities around the airport. Atlanta is a major film, music, and sports town and you get to see a lot of famous people.

I was on the midnight shift for six years and was always dumbfounded about how much work happens overnight. We call it the "reset button" shift since all of the terminals, roads, curbside, trash cans, restrooms, taxiways, and runways are cleaned and repaired. I felt like I worked at Disney since it was all ready for passengers by the morning.

Do you have any advice for people who need to enlist your services?

Advice for travellers: arrive at least 90 minutes prior to you departure time. If it's a busier airport, add more time. I see business travellers who think they can get through the security line like it's a Saturday morning… not on a Monday sir! Read the signs ahead before asking directions.

The best thing to do is relax and be considerate of others. Don't panic that you're going to miss your flight. There will be other flights.

What do people under/over value about what you do?

Passengers don't understand everything that happens to prepare the airport for their arrival. Sometimes we prepare for major events and heavy passenger days. My job is to ensure the airport ready and safe for their arrival. The runways are repaired, concourse floors are swept and waxed, staff arrives hours before your flight, construction activities have stopped, etc.

What kind of money can one expect to make at your job?

Depending on the airport, job title, and level of responsibility, the salary range for the average airport operations person is $US30,000-75,000. It's obviously more in higher cost of living areas such as California and New York.

My two most recent salaries have been in the $US50,000-55,000 depending on the shift I work.

How do you "move up" in your field?

Get as many certifications and training courses under your belt. Look at the "big picture." This goes with any other job. If you're in finance and want to move to management or another department, get involved and learn about how everything works together. Also, get involved and volunteer -- even if it's something you don't like to do.

What advice would you give to those aspiring to join your profession?

The aviation industry is a close-knit community. Get to know someone in the industry and make them your mentor.

In general: Have passion for what you do. Sometimes you have to break some eggs to make an omelette. Do right things instead of doing things right.

Career Spotlight is an interview series on Lifehacker that focuses on regular people and the jobs you might not hear much about -- from doctors to plumbers to aerospace engineers and everything in between.


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