Thella Bowens Retiring After an Impressive Career
Her marks of excellence merits a place in the Aviation Hall of Fame
How do you measure the ability of an airport executive? By definition, an airport is an attractive nuisance– generating billions in local economic benefits while being the site where noise is generated through the machines (airplanes) operated there. Consequently, there are not many local fan clubs for their airport executive. The profession is frequently a target of local groups seeking their airport director’s termination.
Thella F. Bowens has held the position (various titles) of running the San Diego International Airport, in its various legal forms and as known as Lindbergh Field, for 21 years. Basically, she was the first and only person to hold the top executive position at the Airport Authority, owner and operator of the airport. Her airport is surrounded by residences and businesses, the usual sources for anti-airport organizations. So much so, that there have been multiple studies assessing whether SAN can or should be replaced. Ms. Bowens has weathered that civic storm without becoming the eye of that controversy.
That history defines a successful airport executive and Thella should be proud.
On December 2, 2016, she announced that she plans to retire on March 31, 2017. Here are the statements by her and by the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority Chair:
“I have passionately enjoyed my time here, and I am so very proud of our exemplary organization and high-performing team…As I move on to the next stage of my life, I do so knowing that the board and staff will continue to operate a world-class airport for the 21st century.” – Ms. Bowens
“We are extraordinarily fortunate to have had someone of Thella’s impeccable character and steady hand guide the airport — and the authority — through so very much…From the launch of the authority in 2003, to a successful pivot after the defeat of the 2006 ballot measure, to the expansion of Terminal 2 and construction of the rental car center, to adding significant new domestic and international nonstop routes, to exemplary financial growth and stewardship, to making the airport a model of sustainability, her accomplishments comprise a stunning legacy.” – Board Chairman April Boling
More quantitative measures of her excellence:
- She managed a major operational/safety challenge: the busiest single-runway airport in the United States and last year served a record 20 million passengers.
- Her SAN facility generates more than $9 billion annually in economic impact for the region.
- She has overseen the airport’s establishment as a true international gateway.
- SAN offers nonstop service to the United Kingdom, Japan, Canada and Mexico, and next year will add nonstop service to Germany and Switzerland.
- During her tenure, the authority’s assets have grown from $473 million to $2.217 billion, and annual operating revenue has increased from $97 million to $234 million.
She graduated from NYC’s and Columbia’s Barnard College in 1970, an institution known for exceptional alumnae, such as:
- Joan Rivers (1954), star comedian, TV host
- Norma Merrick Sklarek (1950), first black woman to be licensed as an architect in the United States
- Helen Ranney (1941), first woman to lead a university department of medicine in the U.S., be president of the Association of American Physicians, or serve as a Distinguished Physician of the Veterans Administration
- Christine Wang (1989), architect, curator and artist
- Martha Stewart (1964), business magnate, entrepreneur, homemaking advocate
…and a long list of other distinguished, accomplished women. Add to the Barnard scroll a highly respected Public Administration Executive; she belongs in that pantheon.
The airport executive has done graduate work at the University of North Texas and the University of Missouri-Kansas City. She is also a graduate of the Executive Leadership Institute sponsored by the National Forum for Black Public Administrators.
Her on-the-airport-job experience resume started with a job as Budget Administrator for the Dallas/Ft. Worth International Airport in Texas. She then moved to Kansas City where she was the Deputy Executive Director of Kansas City’s Aviation Department, which included Kansas City International Airport and the city’s two general aviation airports.
Ms. Bowens is immediate past president of the California Airports Council Board of Directors, a member of the World Governing Board of Airports Council International, and a board member of the American Association of Airport Executives Policy Review Committee. In 2010 she served as a member of the Department of Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood’s Future of Aviation Advisory Committee, and in 2012 she was the Chair of Airports Council International – North America (ACI-NA).
Locally, she is a member of boards of the San Diego World Trade Center, San Diego Regional Economic Development Corporation, San Diego Tourism Authority, San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce, and Kyoto Symposium Organization. Ms. Bowens has previously served on the boards of the San Diego United Way, the San Diego Symphony, and the National Conflict Resolution Center.
The position of Airport Director is susceptible to “inside-the-castle-itis,” an affectation that has been known to develop among some airport executives as the neighbors constantly beat on the person whom they blame for bringing noise to them (a cause with very little validity). That constant stream of criticism frequently leads to the airport’s head to stay within the protective walls of the castle. Ms. Bowens has had the personal fortitude to withstand the “slings and arrows”; she continued to make contact with all segments of the San Diego community.
Congratulations to Thella Bowens; your mark of excellence merits a place in the Aviation Hall of Fame and a rewarding retirement.