Airports might seem like frantic, disorientating places, but there’s a serious amount of very precise orchestration taking place behind the scenes.
The logistics of getting dozens of big metal tubes in the air—with hundreds of people on board and the drinks and snacks to feed them—boggles the mind. Yet that feat takes place every day at hundreds of airports around the world. It’s a team effort, but one person on the ground carries an extra burden: the airport station manager.
Almost every airline has one of these little-known employees at each of its airports, and they seemingly do it all. They oversee teams of employees; maintain facilities, including gate areas, lounges, or back offices; interact with thousands of customers; serve as an airline’s main representative at the airport; and crucially help ensure that your flight gets on its way as smoothly and as quickly as possible.
You may not notice them amid the rush, but they’re invaluable. Without them, operations on the ground would grind to a halt and you’d be facing a board full of delayed flights. Here’s a closer look at everything they do.
The Day-to-Day Dance Varies From Airport to Airport
Depending upon the airport and airline, station managers’ jobs may differ greatly. A Delta station manager in Detroit may handle hundreds of flights a day while one in Charlotte may only have several dozen. However, they all share one goal: to make sure the flights in their care operate on time and safely.
Some station managers will spend more time behind the scenes, watching for irregular flight operations or delayed flights that will need new gate assignments—hopefully helping avoid those dreaded last-minute changes that have you dashing through the airport. Other station managers stay front and center, engaging with agents and customers on the concourse.
According to Vanna Oak, the Washington Dulles station manager for Air France-KLM, there is no such thing as a typical day. As many as 800 people check in more or less simultaneously for her afternoon flights to Amsterdam and Paris, and she spends much of her time assisting at the ticket counter and gates (which involves a lot of running around at an airport as large as Dulles).
Oak’s day begins much earlier, however, in an office beneath the concourse where she often makes regular calls to operation centers at the airlines’ hubs in Amsterdam and Paris to gather essential information for her flights, including important cargo or VIP passengers. (Washington, D.C., regularly welcomes diplomats and corporate bigwigs, who receive private gate escorts.)
Oak also works to implement new company initiatives and organizes a large budget that covers everything from crew hotels to airport signage and ground equipment.
When an aircraft arrives, she hits the flight apron (the place often mistakenly referred to as the tarmac) where she supervises cleaning and offloading of baggage and cargo. Air France and KLM, like many other airlines, send clean blankets, pillows, menus, and amenity kits in the cargo hold from the inbound flight to use for the return flight. She must ensure there is enough for all of the return passengers.
Getting Planes Back in the Air Is a Race Against the Clock
For a giant Airbus A380, there’s a target turnaround time of two hours and 25 minutes from the moment it opens its doors on arrival to the time it closes for departure. A Boeing 777-200 has one hour and 55 minutes.
The race against time involves everything from refueling the aircraft to carrying out security and customs checks. (Air France, for example, says it has nearly 100 procedures and checks for an international departure.) Everything has to go exactly right for an on-time departure.
Oak’s goal is to close the aircraft door three minutes before scheduled departure so that the plane pushes back on time. She uses a WhatsApp messaging group to communicate with teammates across the airport to ensure there are no hiccups.
Ken Johnson, general manager in San Francisco for JetBlue, has many more flights to handle each day; his is a high-volume domestic operation, which means his role differs from Oak’s.
He points out that a station manager’s role focuses on positioning the airline well in the marketplace. Translation: Reputation is important. So his work extends beyond the airport, encompassing social responsibility initiatives like charitable fund-raising and events for families with children with developmental disabilities.
Passengers themselves present their fair share of problems; last-minute seat change requests, missing fliers at the gate, and TSA issues with forbidden items in checked baggage are among the things an airline manager has to deal with on a regular basis.
Throughout it all, though, ensuring that the planes leave on time is a top priority. Delayed flights affect the airport’s on-time percentage.
When this drops below a certain level, the station manager has some explaining to do with airline operations departments that closely monitor airport performance to keep the global network of flights running smoothly. One delay can cause a domino effect of delays for many other flights—and we all know how that ends up.
It may not be easy to find the station manager—ticket agents and gate staff aren’t always keen on giving out their information—but they’re usually happy to chat with experienced road warriors. Oak says she knows many of the frequent passengers personally and can even block empty seats next to elite-level passengers if space allows.
It’s worth remembering that airlines send satisfaction surveys to travelers asking about the airport experience, including check-in and boarding, and staff are often rewarded for receiving top marks.
You may not notice them amid the hustle and hurry of finding your flight, but the airline station manager is one of the most crucial cogs in the vast airport machine.