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.”

Crowd listening to a speaker at ACI-NA’s 2017 Annual Conference

Cheers to 70 Years: The Best Is Yet to Come

By: Kevin M. Burke, President and CEO, ACI-NA

2018 represents a great milestone for Airports Council International-North America as we celebrate our seventieth anniversary as the Voice of Airports in North America. Anniversaries like this provide a great opportunity to reflect on our past, celebrate our present and look ahead to the future.

As you know, air travel – and the world – has transformed immensely over the last seventy years. And our industry’s evolution along with it hasn’t always been easy or certain. That’s one of the chief reasons ACI-NA exists.

Then in a post-war world with a growing economy, air travel was increasingly accessible to the masses. As we entered the golden age of travel, airports faced many of the same challenges we see today, including burdensome government regulation, infrastructure and investment needs, and airline decision making.

Realizing that there was power in the collective, nineteen founding members convened in New York in 1948 to establish a body that would bring airports together in addressing the challenges and issues of an evolving aviation industry.  From there, our journey took off as the Airport Operators Council.

Looking back, this industry has overcome significant hardships and setbacks. From economic ebbs and flows to airline industry deregulation and airline consolidation to the September 11, 2001 attacks, this industry has always had to be nimble and responsive to the challenge of the day.

Your association has had to be nimble too. In the past seventy years, our name has changed from Airport Operators Council to Airport Operators Council International, and now to Airports Council International-North America in an effort to make room for our ever growing U.S. and Canadian membership and global connections.

While the issues of the past may sound familiar today, so much has changed. Today, airports operate more as businesses than they ever have before.  They are becoming cities unto themselves.

The current landscape presents many unique challenges that require solutions. Today’s airports are not your father or grandfather’s airport. We are seeing a change in the way technology affects air transportation across the world.

Meeting the demands of passenger and cargo growth has never been more important. Our airports must have the ability to modernize as they seek to accommodate rapid growth in passenger and cargo traffic. In the United States alone, airports need nearly $100 billion in infrastructure upgrades and maintenance in order to remain competitive with airports across the globe.

Solving today’s challenges are essential in order to lay the foundation for the future. As such, airports around the world are actively working to enhance competition, create efficiencies through technology, and improve the passenger experience.

There used to be more than thirty airlines that no longer exist because of airline consolidation. The future of the airport industry is at stake without an economic climate that fosters airline competition and choice.

Competition has many benefits in our industry, which can be enhanced through more air service routes and more airline choices. In order to ensure communities in North America remain connected to the global marketplace, we are actively working to make certain our industry – airports and airlines – are as competitive as they can be. Our work in this important area will only grow in the years ahead.

Technology will also be a large part of an overall improved and seamless passenger experience. Today, easiness is synonymous with technology. What new technologies can we use to our benefit? Biometrics is speeding up the boarding process for certain flights, and in a just a few years, all flights may be boarded with the scan of a face.

It’s clear that we must focus on enhancing the passenger experience for a successful future. But these challenges are too big for anyone to handle alone. And that’s where your association comes in.

Members always tell me the real value of ACI-NA comes through our ability to advance airport priorities in Washington and Ottawa, provide essential industry intelligence by keeping the pulse of the issues impacting airport operations, and foster industry collaboration by creating a forum to develop and exchange best practices.  The rich history of advocating for policies and services that strengthen airports will continue as we reflect on our accomplishments and look beyond the horizon.

ACI-NA is only as strong as its members and their active engagement. Our team is proud of the members we serve because of the profound and positive impact they have on local communities across North America. Thank you for your leadership.

Today, as we celebrate our seventieth year with a strong membership and transnational – even global with the establishment of ACI World in 1992 – reach, we recognize that there are obstacles still to overcome. We’re not done yet. We’re just getting started.

Here’s to the next seventy years.