LOS ANGELES – As head of the agency that runs L.A.’s busiest airports, Deborah Ale Flint knows the correlation between hard work and opportunity.
The oldest daughter of African and Caribbean immigrants, Flint watched her parents demonstrate the power of hard work and education as they created a successful life for themselves and their family. It was a formula Flint chose to emulate throughout her life – and when preparation met opportunity, she was ready to take off.
In June, the 47-year-old Oakland native was confirmed as executive director of Los Angeles World Airports (LAWA), which operates Los Angeles International, L.A./Ontario International and Van Nuys airports.
Only the second African American to hold the position since LAWA’s formation in 1928, Flint now is one of the leading airport executives in the nation – black or white.
As a former director of aviation for the Port of Oakland – where she became the first African-American woman airport director in California’s bay area – Flint’s arrival here comes at a crucial time for LAWA:
• LAX, now the nation’s second busiest airport, is in the middle of an $8.5-billion modernization project.
• After years of declining passenger service, the city of Ontario is negotiating to take back control of L.A./Ontario International Airport from the city of Los Angeles.
• Van Nuys Airport has its own set of issues related to declining flight operations and a transition to more services catering to jet aircrafts.
Mayor Eric Garcetti, who nominated Flint to the post, called her “the right aviation executive to lead the changes we are making, overhauling nearly every terminal and bringing rail to LAX, growing passenger activity at LA/Ontario airport and adding new customs service at Van Nuys Airport.’’
The Wave sat down with Flint to discuss her personal journey to the top of her field and detail her vision for LAWA.
WAVE: What was your first exposure to flying?
FLINT: As a child, I had the opportunity to travel throughout the U.S. and overseas with my family, flying to the birthplaces of my parents where my father’s medical expertise was highly valued.
My early experiences with aviation and airports made a lasting impression. It was the excitement of jet travel and going from one place to another. Each of those journeys was something very momentous in my life. I was always enthralled with the airport experience. I thought it was a fascinating place.
Traveling and seeing so many different places in the world and seeing how aviation connects people had a profound effect on me.
I think that those travels as a young person formed a resiliency in me; an ability to adapt to change. This business is one that is full of change and constant adjustment.
WAVE: How did you get started in aviation?
FLINT: After graduating from San Jose State University, with a degree in business administration, I spent a year in Silicon Valley. Hard work, again, played a role when I was able to seize an opportunity in the finance department at the Port of Oakland, which oversees the Oakland seaport as well as Oakland International Airport.
I was interested because it was a multimodal transportation organization. I thought it would be a really interesting place for me to be right out of college. Once at the Port, the fascination I had with airports as a kid returned.
My responsibilities included issuing revenue bonds for the airport and working on capital programs, followed by development programs and runway projects.
When I recognized the engineering, the community, the business aspect of how you actually go about developing and constructing projects, I just loved the complexity. I loved that there was a mission and a purpose to it.
At the same time, there’s the science and all of the expertise that is required in order to deliver these projects and to run an airport. At that point I felt like jet fuel was running through my blood.
WAVE: What does an executive director of an airport do?
FLINT: For all airports, there is a prime executive that is responsible for business development, the operations and regulatory compliance of the airport. That person typically reports to a board or a city authority, like the mayor.
That person is responsible for how the airport grows, develops its facilities and runs safely and securely, partnering with many, many people, obviously, to make those things happen. That could include issuing revenue bonds, working with rating agencies and investment bankers to provide a financial roadmap to affording the development of major assets at the airport.
Sustainability is a key platform, so is driving policies that make the airport better, that are sustainable for today and for decades into the future. That has to be balanced with the fact that an airport is a huge, complex operation in the middle of a residential community, a business community, and a commercial community.
To the extent that there are impacts — which there always are — that we work together on mitigating those impacts.
WAVE: What is your vision for LAWA?
FLINT: The journey that I see for myself leading LAWA is one that is going to take some time. At LAX, I do want the entire airport – not just a single terminal – to be ranked at the top of the global airports and for the over 70 million annual passengers, the residents of Los Angeles and Southern California to love their airport and to say it reflects just what a great city this is.