Pay It Forward: The Life and Legacy of Sue Baer

By Mimi Ryals

Sue was an exceptional airport leader who garnered respect and admiration among her colleagues,” remembers Candace McGraw, Chief Executive Officer of Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport and Chair of Airports Council International – North America (ACI-NA). “She knew the industry and her craft and was always willing to share her knowledge and passion for the industry.”

During her 40-year career, Susan (Sue) M. Baer is credited with shattering the glass-ceiling in transportation. In doing so, she worked to strengthen aviation in the United States to ensure a successful future for the industry. Following her passing in 2016, she continues to leave a legacy worthy of being recognized with the 2018 William E. Downes, Jr. Award, ACI-NA’s highest honor.


Though she has had a profound impact on the aviation industry, Baer began her career at the Panama Canal. When the U.S. passed control of the facility to the Panamanians, she joined the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey as a management analyst in the tunnels, bridges and terminals department.

“They wanted women who could type,” Baer recalled, as quoted in 2006 in Tom Murphy’s book Reclaiming the Sky: 9/11 and the Untold Story of the Men and Women Who Kept America Flying. “I convinced them that after traveling on my own through South and Central America, I could take whatever they gave me.”

Baer proved she could take whatever they gave her. She was swiftly promoted to Manager of the Public Services Division within the department. Then, she was named the Manager of the Lincoln Tunnel. She was the first woman to hold that position.

Next, Baer became the Manager of the Midtown Manhattan Port Authority Bus terminal, the world’s busiest bus terminal. She was the first woman to hold that position, too.

After mastering her various roles thus far in the agency, Baer joined the Aviation Department as General Manager of Aviation Customer and Marketing Services in 1988. She became the first person to manage all of the major agency airports – LaGuardia Airport, Newark Liberty International Airport and John F. Kennedy International Airport. In 2009, she was named was named Director of Aviation for the agency. She was the first woman to hold that position.

“Though she followed in the footsteps of several powerful men, Sue charted her own course with a collaborative style that generated innovation,” recalls Ginger Evans, former Commissioner of the Chicago Department of Aviation.

Baer retired in 2013 following 25 years in the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey’s Aviation Department. To continue her successful career in the industry, she joined Arup, one of the world’s largest professional engineering and consulting firms. Her final role was as the firm’s Global Aviation Business Leader, where she oversaw consulting efforts at over 100 airports worldwide.

“Sue was the ultimate trailblazer, having been the first female General Manager at three of the largest airports in the United States (LGA, EWR, JFK) and then running one of the largest airport systems in the world, first as Deputy Director and then Director of Aviation at The Port Authority,” notes Lysa Scully, General Manager of LaGuardia Airport. “Her success and achievements have set the bar to a level that the rest of the industry will have to work endlessly to try and reach.”

A Natural Leader for Airports

Baer was regarded as a “natural leader” who exuded confidence and passion. Such traits were a vital part of her successfully managing one of the world’s most active aviation hubs. She understood the important role the airport plays in creating a seamless travel experience. Thus, she led multiple modernization efforts at New York City’s major airports.

“‘People say to me: ‘Your airports are always under construction. When’s it going to be done?’” Baer commented to USA Today on the continual modernization efforts underway in New York’s airport terminals. “‘I tell them: ‘I hope never’, because that means we’ve stopped and we’re not really meeting the needs of the future. You’ve always got to be doing something.’”

Any expert in the aviation industry will tell you that modernization efforts are necessary on the ground and in the sky. Baer was an advocate for a modernized air space to match the continual improvements the agency was making to airport terminals. She was one of the first airport leaders to champion implementing the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen), the FAA’s modernization of America’s air transportation system that aims to make flying more efficient.

She also had a deep understanding of the complexities and challenges of the New York airspace and air carriers that use it. “Sue also understood how supporting a new carrier like JetBlue that is and was dedicated to delivering low fares with a better customer experience would help discipline prices of other carriers and challenge the industry to raise its customer service game,” said Joanna Geraghty, President and Chief Operating Officer of JetBlue.

At Arup, Baer used her legendary leadership skills to foster collaboration between airport management and the design industry. Her expertise and enthusiasm made her an invaluable asset in preparing airports and the broader aviation industry for the future of travel.

A Legacy for Future Leaders

“As smart, effective and successful as she was, she will be remembered more for the integrity, kindness and wisdom with which she conducted herself in all she did,” said Jenny Buckley, America’s Aviation Leader for Arup.

Living by the motto “Pay it forward,” Baer left a legacy that ensures the future of the aviation industry and its leaders will flourish. During the busiest years of her career, she found time for a teaching role at Vaughn College of Aeronautics and Technology in Queens, NY in hopes of making a rewarding career in the industry accessible to all genders, races and social-economic backgrounds.

A substantial part of Baer’s legacy is shattering the glass ceiling for women in transportation. She was the first woman to hold the majority of her leadership positions at the Port Authority of New York and Jersey – a revolutionary accomplishment during a time where the presence of women was rare in these industries. Following in her footsteps, there are nearly 40 women leading North America’s thriving airports today.

“What I’ve tried to do with it is give other women opportunities, and that’s something all women should be doing,” Baer once told USA Today. “It was hard for us to get here, but we ought to be making it easier for the people who are coming behind us.”