Ricky Smith, the executive director and CEO of the Maryland Aviation Administration (MAA), who leads BWI Thurgood Marshall Airport, has presided over record breaking growth at the airport during his tenure, which began in July 2015. But, he cites the good fortune of a relatively strong economy (at least by some metrics), as much as his work ethic and leadership skills.
“I have to be frank, as much as I would like to take absolute responsibility, a lot of it has to do with the economy,” Smith told the AFRO. “I’m not trying to be political, but the fact of the matter is people want to use the most economical transportation…the economy is humming and people have the disposable income to fly. They are choosing to fly out of BWI because we offer more low fares…more non-stop destinations than any of the other airports in the Baltimore, Washington, Philadelphia area…that’s part of the reason why we’re winning D.C.”
Specifically, he says the airport can offer lower fares because it maintains lower operating costs than its regional competitors. According to Smith, BWI Marshall’s operating cost is about $9.53 per passenger, versus Reagan National at about $15 per passenger, Dulles at $24 per passenger and Philadelphia International at $14 per passenger.
According to the Maryland Department of Transportation (MDOT), BWI Marshall is the busiest airport in the Baltimore-Washington region (July marked 25 consecutive monthly passenger records according to MDOT). More than 24 million domestic and more than one million passengers traveled via BWI Marshall during the airport’s last fiscal year, which ended in July 2017.
Before coming back to Maryland, Smith, a native of West Baltimore operated in essentially the same capacity in Cleveland (CEO of the Cleveland Airport System) as his current position at BWI Marshall. However, he says a call from Gov. Larry Hogan changed the trajectory of his career.
“I was in Cleveland doing pretty well for 10 years…Cleveland was good to me,” said Smith. “I got a call from Gov. Hogan…he didn’t like that I went to Cleveland in 2006. He reached out to me and I thought I could take the airport where he thought the airport could go. He is the reason why I’m back in Maryland,” added Smith.
Smith, the state’s first Black executive director and CEO of the MAA, is originally from the West Baltimore neighborhood once known as Whitelock City (within the larger community of Reservoir Hill). He continues to be inspired by the people from his old neighborhood who invested in him in multiple ways.
“It’s not just the fact I’m African American, when I speak to groups I let them know I’m from Whitelock Street. I take a lot of pride in it,” Smith said. “I represent a lot of people who put me on their backs to help me make it through.”
Smith says he is purposeful in crafting opportunities for others who may have come from circumstances similar to his own.
“There are more women and (people of color) working at this airport than most other airports,” Smith said. “It is because we create an environment where they can get here and make a career working at the airport.”
He points to the, “Launchpad Program,” which recruits smaller businesses owned by women or people of color, many from economically challenged communities to set up shop at BWI Marshall. “About 75 applied and we narrowed it down to four…Four African-American females won out. They are now operating here at the airport and are doing very well,” Smith said. “The airport is open for business or employment for anybody interested in pursuing an opportunity here. If we can get that person in the airport…and teach them how to operate in this very complex environment, that can make a huge difference for that person.”
Ultimately, Smith’s overarching vision for BWI Marshall is tied to the level of buy in on the part of the people he leads.
“The most important thing that I’ve accomplished…I’ve created a performance driven culture,” Smith said. “We have a vision to be better and a very aggressive strategic plan. Every employee is tied to the strategic vision of the organization. They feel like they are part of something bigger than themselves.”