Sky’s the Limit

Four aviation specialists keep pace with industry changes at incredible heights

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 don’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. “The airport, no matter who it’s operated by, is not an island unto itself. It is heavily integrated into the community,” she says. “It is an asset that creates traffic, noise, and emissions.”

Such issues involve other agencies in the community, so aside from operational and technical acumen, good political instincts are critical.

“You can take many roads to get where I am,” offers Bowens, who earned a bachelor’s of arts degree in political science from Barnard College. “There are people in this business who have business, law, and engineering backgrounds.” 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 region’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,” says Bowens, who’s worked 21 years in aviation. “It is a very dynamic and fascinating business,” she adds. “When people work at airports they tend to get jet fuel in their veins—it just becomes part of your DNA.”

Kimberly McCommon
Captain ­ExpressJet Airlines
Chicago

Out of approximately 150,000 pilots, Kimberly McCommon can literally name the black female commercial airline captains in the industry. “There are only about 50 of us,” she says. McCommon never thought she’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 University’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.

“In this business, you make sacrifices,” 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. “Stress is high, but you can’t take your problems with you into the cockpit. You have to be 100%; if you’re not you’re dangerous to yourself and others.”

This story originally appeared in the July 2009 issue of Black Enterprise magazine.

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