Mark Gale

How Mark Gale rose from intern to CEO over a 28-year career at Philadelphia International Airport

By Marjorie Preston / Photography by Mitro Hood

By December, most of the plaques, personal photos, model planes and other minutiae of Mark Gale’s working life had been boxed up and put away. His office walls were empty, the desk almost clear.

After nearly 28 years at Philadelphia International Airport (PHL), including the last seven in the top job, Gale had racked up plenty of war stories, a few gray hairs and lots of mementos. He also achieved a longevity that, by industry standards, is nothing short of remarkable — spending the equivalent of an entire career at one airport.

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“There have been plenty of times in the past 28 years where I thought I was going to be out the door,” says the 53-year-old Gale. “Fortunately for me, with hard work and opportunity as well as a little bit of luck, something always happened where I was able to stay.”

Starting as an intern in the mid-1980s, he advanced steadily through the ranks, becoming airport operations manager in 1996 and deputy director of aviation in 2001. By 2005, he says, approximately “eighty percent of the employee base was reporting up through my chain. Those incremental gains broadened my base, who I was as a manager, the things I got involved in. They were enough to keep me here.”

In 2009, following a nationwide search, Gale was appointed CEO of the city-owned airport by then-Mayor Michael Nutter. Nutter called him “the best in the business.”

Flight plan

Outside Gale’s office is one of the most sophisticated assembly lines in the world. Any given day, more than 500 aircraft take off and land at PHL; a steady stream of jetliners, some weighing in excess of 400 tons, arrive and depart at speeds of up to 180 miles per hour. Each day, approximately 84,000 passengers pass through these gates, to be served, directly or indirectly, by tens of thousands of staffers.

Contemporary airports are much more than way stations, says Gale; they have become the equivalent of small cities, complete with retail, restaurants, and even concerts and other special events. The expectations of travelers have changed accordingly. They want more than short lines and hassle-free baggage claims. “They look for the finest in food and amenities, they look for arts, entertainment and culture, they look for a space where they can get some work done,” says Gale.

Ultimately, the CEO is in charge of it all. Fortunately for Gale, on the way to the corner office he did just about every job in this place, from mopping floors and cleaning bathrooms during a municipal workers’ strike to orchestrating a multi-phase, multi-billion-dollar expansion that won’t be complete until years, possibly decades, after he is gone. He has overseen critical functions including security, safety, maintenance, information technology, engineering design and construction, emergency plans, snow removal, rules and regulations development, and all airport operations, as well as daily operations at Northeast Philadelphia Airport.

As CEO, he was responsible for “everything that moves and walks and talks and squeaks at the airport,” says John Saler, government and media relations specialist for the law firm Stradley Ronon and chairman of the airport advisory board. “Mark’s forte was operations, but he also became a good salesman and a good marketing guy. He did a good job, particularly going after new airlines.”

MARK GALE

During his tenure, in fact, Gale presided over the launch of five new carriers at PHL, and also worked to secure Philadelphia as a hub for American Airlines after its merger with US Airways. He even helped coordinate the visit from Pope Francis. And not incidentally, he oversaw a total staff of more than 800 airport employees.

“He knows everything,” says Robert “Bob” Ciminelli, who worked closely with Gale during Ciminelli’s six-year term as American Airlines’ vice president of Philadelphia operations. “I was always amazed at how well he knew the place — the FAA piece of it, the TSA piece of it, all of it. Mark Gale knew it cold.”

The aviation bug

One of six children of a welder and a secretary at the local school district, Gale grew up in Levittown, Bucks County. He cannot remember a time he was not fascinated by flight. It may have been in the bloodline; his grandfather was a pilot who announced Sunday visits by buzzing the house where Mark grew up.

“I’m not a pilot myself, and my grandfather passed when I was a small child, but I always felt that’s where I got the love,” he says. “I always had the aviation bug.”

His interest was reinforced at Bishop Egan High School, where his guidance counselor was a Franciscan friar, Fidelis Weber, who also had a love of aviation. “His office was right across the street from my Spanish class. He’d tell the teacher, ‘I’d like to see Señor Gale,’ and bring me over to look at this catalog for an aeronautical university” — Embry-Riddle in Daytona Beach, FL.

After high school, Gale landed a job at Philadelphia-based Altair, but before he could finish the training program, the airline went bankrupt. So he headed to Embry-Riddle, and briefly considered a career in air traffic control before switching to aviation management. Gale thought about working on the cargo side, but when an intern position with an air cargo carrier fell through, he went for the internship at PHL. It was 1985.

“It wasn’t what I wanted at the time, but I was in a tough spot, so I said, let’s try it. For the first few weeks, I couldn’t stand it — they had me sitting at a desk.” After he was sprung from desk duty, however, “something changed. I really started to enjoy getting out and about at the airport, meeting new people, and seeing the kind of work that was going on. In two months’ time, I knew I could make a career out of airport management.”

Gale’s relentless work ethic may have been shaped when he circled back for a second internship, in the summer of 1986. In July of that year, 15,400 city employees walked off the job in what’s still remembered as the Great Garbage Strike. The 21-day standoff in broiling hot weather forced the shutdown of city libraries and state-run museums, and turned Philadelphia into a landfill. But the airport remained open.

“I wasn’t in the union, so it was all hands on deck — everybody needed to pitch in,” says Gale. For the duration of the walkout, he worked side by side with managers and supervisors, averaging 16 hours a day, often camping overnight at the airport. “Deputy directors were picking up trash and running trash compactors,” he recalls. “I was assigned to the manager of the overseas facility, so we managed that entire building, too — parking airplanes, parking buses, along with cleaning toilets, mopping floors, washing windows, and fixing things that broke in bathrooms and baggage conveyors.”

That experience may have helped prepare him for the rigors ahead. During the Valentine’s Day Blizzard of 2007, and subsequent knockout snowstorms in 2008, 2009 and 2010, Gale displayed the same endurance, says Ciminelli (who was “shocked” by the intensity of the storms — even though he’s from Buffalo). “For long days and long nights, Mark was there to help coordinate from the operations side with his team to make sure runways were clean and safe,” says Ciminelli. “I was very impressed with his loyalty to his team — he wasn’t sitting home while they were getting pounded by the snow.

“There were many nights we’d sit around at the Marriott Hotel and he’d say, ‘Here we are again, Bob, spending more time on the job than with our families.’”

Climbing to altitude

In January 2009, Charles J. Isdell retired as PHL’s aviation director after nine years. With Gale stepping in as acting director, a national search for a replacement was led by Rina Cutler, the city’s deputy mayor of transportation and utilities for most of the Nutter administration.

At first, Cutler concedes, she was not sold on the soft-spoken, self-effacing Mark Gale as a candidate. “But he rose to the top during the search process, and I never regretted the decision,” she wrote in an email. “He led the airport through a difficult EIS (environmental impact statement) process and successfully received a record of decision for an expansion at PHL. That could not have happened without his extensive knowledge of the airport and his strategic thinking for how to move it forward. He did a great job.”

Cutler is referring to what could be termed Gale’s legacy achievement. Between 2010 and 2015, he was instrumental in implementing a multi-billion dollar, multi-year capital improvement program that includes facility upgrades and runway improvements. It is designed to reduce aircraft backups and modernize aging facilities. The approval process was years in the making, and included a prolonged legal fight with the neighboring jurisdiction. (Though PHL is city-owned, most of the land is in Tinicum Township, Delaware County; residents there balked at the initial plan, which called for the demolition of dozens of homes. The plan was later modified to spare the homes and also included a multi-million-dollar settlement.)

Over time, PHL’s Capacity Enhancement Program will enable the airport to expand its footprint and make critical improvements to increase its competitiveness. The improvements, which will include the addition of a new runway along the Delaware River, are long overdue. In 2009, PHL was the fourth most delayed airport in the most congested airspace in the country, according to a report from the Federal Aviation Administration. Those delays “affect the national airspace system … (and) impose substantial costs in time and money for passengers and airlines, cargo shippers, and for other users of the air transportation system.”

Adding a new runway and lengthening another is key to attracting coveted long-haul flights to China, India and elsewhere. Those connections would bring more international visitors and potentially generate interest in the city among multinational corporations. Gale has met with government officials in China, Korea, Japan and elsewhere about inaugurating flights to and from Philadelphia; meanwhile, travelers can find connecting flights to Asia via multiple carriers.

When the changes are complete, airport officials have estimated the economic impact of PHL could grow from $14.4 billion annually to $26.4 billion.

Gale is pleased with the plan, but modest about the achievement.

“I prefer to look at my time here as a body of work,” he says. “For example, we opened up a new international terminal in 2003, a magnificent $550 million facility that since then has processed more than 50 million people. It’s a great addition to the airport. But is it any more important than making it through a snowstorm?

“People want to have a lot of fife and drums and ribbon-cutting about this huge investment, but the most important thing is to meet the daily needs of the passengers. While they may like a new runway 10 years from now, they’re more concerned about what they’re going to find in this terminal today. Are they going to get through security quickly without a lot of frustration and stress? Are they going to find a clean bathroom, and good places to eat and shop? Are they going to get their flight out of here on time? Are they going to hit free WiFi? That’s what they care about in this facility.”

Dr. PHL

Running an airport successfully is not always about nuts and bolts or billion-dollar deals, says Gale. At bottom, it’s about building and maintaining relationships — with the community at large, with the political bosses in charge, and with the airlines, which he refers to as “our vested business partners.”

“Our stakeholders are far and wide: the concessions and the airlines, the FAA in Washington, the local mayor and city council, police and fire departments on the safety side, people in Harrisburg. On the federal level, there are senators and congressmen, not only from our area, but others as well. There’s the FBI, the DEA, ICE … In the end, this job is about managing a large transportation facility that is clearly an asset to the city or region it serves. But if you can’t manage to collaborate and have great relationships, then I don’t think you can be successful.”

Gale put his own relationship skills to work while advocating for the master plan, a thorny task that was more challenging because of PHL’s location — bordered by the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers, the federally protected John Heinz Wildlife Refuge, Interstate 95, the Philadelphia Navy Yard and densely populated Tinicum Township. “We’re kind of locked in what I call this postage stamp,” and unable to grow significantly, says Gale.

For that reason, though PHL is among the busiest international airports in the U.S., at less than 2,400 acres, it is also among the smallest — smaller in land mass than airports in Eugene, OR, Waterloo, IA, and Lubbock, TX. It is even smaller than Lehigh Valley International Airport near Bethlehem. And it is dwarfed by airports in other major cities, like Denver International (33,000 acres); Dallas-Fort Worth (18,000 acres) and Washington Dulles (13,000 acres).

“You can literally fit six or seven PHLs inside some of those big airports,” says Gale. “While it would be great to have 5,000 acres, let alone 10,000 or 20,000, the fact is we probably will never have it. That doesn’t mean we can’t make great things happen in this facility if we stretch out our elbows just a little bit on either side so it’s a little more efficient in the airfield and terminal layouts.

“The goal for me has always been to try to improve the facility, make sure it’s safe and secure, meet all those stakeholders’ needs and leave it better than we found it or inherited it.”

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Escape velocity

From his early days in aviation, Gale says, he had his eye on the top spot — if not at PHL, at some other airport. An early mentor, then-airport director Mary Rose Loney, advised him to bypass the C-suite and stick to operations.

“She said, ‘Mark, you don’t want to be the No. 1. You want to be No. 2.’ She said the No. 2 is the person who gets to run the airport day to day. It’s where the romance is. You’re out among the planes, you’re making things happen. You’re engaged, day-in and day-out, in the pure operations of the airport. The No. 1 is typically the person who has to deal with all the bull and the politics downtown.

“She said I was an operations guy at heart — that’s where I cut my teeth.”

He admits there were “threads of truth” in Loney’s advice — “I kind of love the smell of jet fuel in the morning” — but he was undeterred by it.

“I always wanted to be No. 1,” says Gale. “When I was appointed acting director in January 2009, it was a dream come true, something I wanted to achieve my whole life. I didn’t know I would achieve it at age 46. I didn’t know I would achieve it here in my hometown. I didn’t know I would find it as rewarding as I did. I’m happy with the way things turned out for me.”

Marjorie Preston is a freelance writer based in Media, PA. Contact us at editorial@smartceo.com.

WHEELS UP

In the 1970 disaster movie “Airport,” hard-charging airport manager Mel Bakersfeld (Burt Lancaster) coped with grumpy travelers, irate community groups, icy runways, an insubordinate pilot and, in the film’s climactic finish, a jumbo jet disabled by a suicidal passenger. On the ground and in the air, Bakersfeld ran the show.

Asked about parallels to his job as CEO of Philadelphia International Airport, Mark Gale says, “Dramatization is great for the movies. There’s some truth and synergy with the role here, but no one gets to control this place – not the CEO, not the port director, not the federal security director, not the ATC control tower manager, and none of the airlines.”

That said, over the years Gale has had a hand in every aspect of operations at PHL. And he relished it.

Why retire?

“It was a change of administration,” Gale says. “I served at the pleasure of the mayor. All things being equal, I would do this for 50 years.” Gale was succeeded by his second-in-command, Rochelle “Chellie” Cameron, appointed by Mayor Jim Kenney.

The top job had its drawbacks, Gale says. “It’s a pretty heavy load. There can be long hours. It can be very stressful worrying about the safety of passengers, and anything can go wrong when people are trying to do bad things. But when I go down and walk the terminals, say hi to the passengers, see families traveling together and interact with them — that’s the thing that made this tremendously rewarding.”

Gale’s influence will be felt for years to come, especially in the multibillion-dollar airport expansion plan approved on his watch. “Yes, I’d like to see these ideas come to fruition,” Gale says, “but I’ve given most of my adult life to this place, and sometimes folks that stay in one job or one area too long don’t get to experience all life has to offer.

“This was a terrific first chapter, and there is going to be a chapter 2, maybe in airport consulting, maybe outside the industry. I have no intentions of sitting on the sidelines. I’m too young, have too much energy, and have too much to offer to a firm or to a mission.”

Gale’s wife, Yvonne, who also worked in the airline business, retired several years ago, he adds. “Our kids are grown, the grandkids are almost grown. It’s time to start a new adventure.” (After deadline for this article, it was announced that Gale would lead Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport in Florida.)

In a statement on Gale’s exit, Michael Minerva, American Airlines’ vice president of government and airport affairs, said the former CEO leaves “a larger and better airport than the one he found when he started in 1985. Mark’s successor will inherit an airport poised for greater improvement … On a personal note, those of us who have worked closely with Mark over the years wish him all the best as he moves into the next chapter of his life.”

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