Thella F. Bowens
President & CEO San Diego County Regional Airport Authority, San Diego
Thella Bowens oversees 380 employees supporting 18 airlines, 600 flights, and 50,000 passengers each day, but these numbers donâ€™t reveal the level of intensity for day-to-day operations at San Diego International Airport and Airport Authority. Bowens, 59, manages an operating budget of $145 million and a $370 million capital budget, implements airport policies, and is hands-on in dealing with community and environmental concerns. She is regularly engaged with airline executives, legal consultants, development committees, the Chamber of Commerce, her staff, and a slew of other stakeholders. â€śThe airport, no matter who itâ€™s operated by, is not an island unto itself. It is heavily integrated into the community,â€ť she says. â€śIt is an asset that creates traffic, noise, and emissions.â€ť
Such issues involve other agencies in the community, so aside from operational and technical acumen, good political instincts are critical.
â€śYou can take many roads to get where I am,â€ť offers Bowens, who earned a bachelorâ€™s of arts degree in political science from Barnard College. â€śThere are people in this business who have business, law, and engineering backgrounds.â€ť The salary generally ranges from $150,000 to more than $300,000, and is influenced by the size of the airport, the complexity of the airport system, and the regionâ€™s cost of living. There are about nine other African Americans who manage a U.S. airport.
African Americans who are in this business are probably the first or second generation; it takes time to develop the numbers,â€ť says Bowens, whoâ€™s worked 21 years in aviation. â€śIt is a very dynamic and fascinating business,â€ť she adds. â€śWhen people work at airports they tend to get jet fuel in their veinsâ€”it just becomes part of your DNA.â€ť
Captain ÂExpressJet Airlines
Out of approximately 150,000 pilots, Kimberly McCommon can literally name the black female commercial airline captains in the industry. â€śThere are only about 50 of us,â€ť she says. McCommon never thought sheâ€™d be part of such an exclusive group. With a degree in business from Florida A&M, she intended to become an athletic director but had difficulty finding a post. She settled for a gate agent position with United Airlines but soon joined the Organization of Black Airline Pilots because of her appreciation for the industry.
In 1997 she joined FedEx as a customer service representative and then became a flight attendant for Northwest. But her activity in OBAP solidified her ambition to fly. She enrolled in Western Michigan Universityâ€™s 16-month program for minority students called the International Pilot Training Center Program, and eventually became a first officer flying for a private jet company, only to be later laid off and forced to accept a desk job.
â€śIn this business, you make sacrifices,â€ť McCommon remarks on her juggling of her work schedule to find time to increase her flight times. By qualifying for a training scholarship, she began working with a regional airline five years ago and was upgraded to captain in 2007. â€śStress is high, but you canâ€™t take your problems with you into the cockpit. You have to be 100%; if youâ€™re not youâ€™re dangerous to yourself and others.â€ť
This story originally appeared in the July 2009 issue of Black Enterprise magazine.