DeCosta reflects on time at Hartsfield-Jackson

Photo by Heather Middleton

Photo by Heather Middleton

Inside a Department of Aviation meeting room at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, Aviation General Manager Ben DeCosta sat casually sipping coffee from a large Hartsfield-Jackson mug. He carefully sat the cup on top of his Wall Street Journal and began to tell his story.

DeCosta, who has been in the aviation industry for more than 20 years, said he was about 8 years old when he experienced winning for the first time.

He said it was 1954 and Holy Rosary, a Catholic private school in Brooklyn, N.Y., was having a field day for students. He said the nuns asked him to participate in a standing broad jump competition at the event, and he won.

"They just had a field day and I won, and I said, ‘Hey, I am somebody,'" DeCosta said, as he laughed with a smile. "Winning makes you somebody."

The outgoing chief of the world's busiest airport said he has a competitive drive, which he stoked as a gymnast and a track athlete while attending Queens College, in Flushing, N.Y. "‘The difference between winning and not winning,' to quote Mark Twain, ‘is the difference between lightning and a lightning bug,'" said DeCosta. "When you win, you are not the same person."

DeCosta will step down as chief of Hartsfield-Jackson effective June 30, but his journey does not end there.

After leading Hartsfield-Jackson for 12 years, he said he will open a consulting business before the end of the summer, through which he plans to work with aviation officials on a full range of aviation strategy and organizational issues.

Customer first

According to DeCosta, during his 12 years at Hartsfield-Jackson, he and his team established a culture of commitment to customer satisfaction critical to the airport's progress and advancement.

Another important ingredient for success has been a focus on the performance of the Department of Aviation, said DeCosta. Five years ago, a leadership council was created to focus on the development of the department, and to assure it remains a top-tier organization, he added.

DeCosta said that under his leadership, the department has spent more money on employee training and development.

"We have made people [employees] realize that they are chiefly responsible for their own personal growth and the growth of their families, and we have supported that through the development of training programs here at the airport," DeCosta said during a recent interview.

Mario Diaz, director of aviation at Houston Airport System in Houston, Texas, and the former deputy general manager at Hartsfield-Jackson, said his friendship and professional collaboration with DeCosta dates back about 17 years, to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

Diaz said the Atlanta airport has been successful because of DeCosta's focus on customer service and employee training and development. He said he has applied these methods at the Houston Airport System.

"I came to Houston with a special talent ... as a result of many years of working with Ben and others," said Diaz. "He [DeCosta] thinks of moving away from the masses, tries to take advantage and lead in a different direction."

Airport growth

DeCosta said his team has worked to bring enough capacity to the world's busiest airport to accommodate increasing numbers of passengers.

According to DeCosta, projects such as the addition of 10 new security checkpoints, completed in October 2008, have helped reduce passenger-screening wait times. The number of security lanes increased from 22 to 32.

"People do not wait in long lines and they get through here ... because of the investments we've made," DeCosta said. "...It all adds up to increased capacity."

During his time at Hartsfield-Jackson, DeCosta has overseen a $6-billion-plus Capital Improvement Program that included building a fifth runway over an interstate highway, and the construction of a new international terminal. The program was launched in 2000, and construction of the Maynard H. Jackson Jr. International Terminal is due for completion in April 2012, according to the airport's web site.

The Capital Improvement Program also included the consolidated rental car center, which opened on Dec. 8, 2009. The fifth runway opened in May 2006.

DeCosta said the hardest airport-enhancement project he managed was the fifth runway.

"The fifth runway at this airport was an impossible project," he said.

"When I got here, the annual economic impact of the airport was less than $15 billion," he added. "And today it's over $32 billion and part of that is the investment we made, including the fifth runway."

‘They show you the way'

DeCosta said he was born on Dec. 8, 1945, in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he grew up.

He received his Bachelor of Arts degree in physics from Queens College in 1968.

DeCosta said he got an itch for the aviation industry while attending New York Law School and working for a man at the law department of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, writing annual reports and reading legal cases in relation to aviation. "I never had any ambition to be an airport manager until someone suggested I could be one," he said.

According to DeCosta, he received his law degree from the law school in 1975, and in 1984, he participated in the Senior Executives in State and Local Government program, at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

In 1992, DeCosta became general manager of the central business division in the aviation department of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, he explained.

According to DeCosta, the City of Atlanta invited him down for several days to participate in a review of Hartsfield-Jackson's concessions. Later that year, the city began a search for an aviation general manager and called DeCosta for an interview, he said.

"Some of them thought I was a good candidate in being a new leader for this airport, and so I interviewed for it and wasn't selected, and then the following year, they renewed the search and asked me to interview again and I did, in 1993, and they ultimately picked Angela Gittens, my predecessor," said DeCosta.

DeCosta said in 1994, he became general manager of Newark Liberty International Airport, and led the airport for nearly five years.

The City of Atlanta contacted DeCosta for a third time, to interview for the general manager position, but he said he declined the overtures at first.

"They had a few people call me, and finally I got a call from the mayor and I was persuaded to come and meet with him," DeCosta said.

He became Hartsfield-Jackson's aviation general manager in June 1998, he added.

According to DeCosta, he has approximately one week left before he leaves Hartsfield-Jackson. Deputy General Manager Robert Kennedy has been named to take over as acting aviation general manager upon DeCosta's departure.

Jeff Dickerson, a media consultant for the airport from about 2001 to 2002, met and worked with DeCosta and described him as detail oriented and meticulous.

"I do not think there was a single detail that escaped his notice," said Dickerson.

"It's true," DeCosta said, responding to Dickerson's comment. "I have a high work ethic, which I got from my daddy ... I set goals for myself and the satisfaction from my professional work is meeting goals I set for myself ... the work ethic comes from watching the people you love, and they show you the way."