For Ricky D. Smith, his first year at the helm of the Maryland Aviation Administration, including the Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, has been a dream.

Ricky Dorell Smith

“It’s been a true homecoming for me,” he told the AFRO. “I’ve been in this business now for 27 years, and most of those years I grew up in this airport. So to come home in a way that I can work with the team and impact the direction of the airport and provide such a valuable service to the airport, it’s a dream come true. I couldn’t have scripted it any better.”

A career in transportation was never something Smith dreamed about as a child growing up as the second of six children on Whitelock Street in Baltimore’s Reservoir Hill—although dreams were sometimes the only escape in a neighbourhood riddled with drugs and crime.

“There always the lure of engaging in activities that would allow you to get some of the joys in life much more quickly… particularly when you compare yourself to people who seem to be doing better than you,” Smith said. But the experience prepared him for success later in life.

“It something I’m very proud of,” Smith said of his upbringing in inner-city Baltimore. “I always attribute my ability to get through challenging times on this job and other jobs that I have had to the growth that I experienced while I was growing up in Reservoir Hill.

He also attributes his longevity in business to his parents—his mother, a factory worker for over 33 years, and his father, whom he called a “hustler”—in a good way.

“My father was not someone who could work for someone for long. He was not a good employee. He was not disciplined enough. He was too much of a free spirit to hold a job for long time. He was much more entrepreneurial,” Smith said of his father, who started several enterprises, including driving a taxi cab and a landscaping business, over the years.

“I had the patience to stay in an organization like this for a long time and see it through because my mother instilled in me a more disciplined, stable personality. But I am innovative and try to be creative in a way people associate with entrepreneurs, and that comes from my father,” he added.

Smith began his long-time relationship with BWI-Marshall in 1990 when the Howard University graduate took on the position of budget manager. After a while he bounced around to several positions in the airport’s operations, then left to spend two years as the deputy administrator for the Maryland State Highway Administration. He then returned to the Aviation Administration as chief operating officer, helping to lead BWI Marshall through a $2 billion expansion program, increased global air service, and the creation of a new food and retail program. In June 2006, he left BWI for Cleveland, where—among other duties—he served as CEO of the city’s Cleveland Hopkins International Airport for nine years.

The difference in circumstances at Hopkins International and at BWI-Marshall is very stark, he said.

“It really is a tale of two cities,” the longtime transportation executive said.

“ was a very difficult environment to operate in because the economy in Cleveland, like so many of the Rust Belt cities, is much more depressed,” he elaborated. “On the other hand, even when the economy is in a downturn, Maryland’s economy is relatively stable…. So you don’t have to be as creative with very scarce resources.”

All the pitfalls he encountered and mistakes he made in Cleveland have prepared him to be a much better CEO at BWI-Marshall, Smith said.

“For example, I would be so focused on what is the right thing to do from a professional standpoint that I didn’t always factor in the politics of stuff,” and that placed him at odds with the Cleveland City Council early on in his tenure, Smith said. “So here that’s not a learning curve I have to go through…. I don’t take it for granted that the public or the political community here understand why I’m doing something and why it’s important. I know I have to spend time educating and informing stakeholders around what we’re doing.”

That’s why, for example, the airport’s four-year strategic plan, which will be announced soon, is driven by feedback from the business community, political community, the airport community, airlines and other tenants, and the employees, Smith said.

The four-year plan seeks to expand on the growth BWI-Marshall is experiencing and to address some of the challenges presented by that growth.

“We are the 24th busiest airport in the country and the busiest airport in the Baltimore-Washington region,” Smith said. “Last year we experienced 24 million passengers, that’s the most passengers in the history of the airport, and we’re going through our 10th consecutive month of record-setting growth.”

The heavy traffic through BWI-Marshall is being fuelled by its convenient access, its offering of more low cost flights than any other airport in the Washington-Baltimore-Philadelphia region as well as more non-stop destinations through Southwest Airlines, the airport’s main carrier, Smith said.

His challenge in the past year has been to not only continue that growth, but also to configure the facility to handle that growth without changing the airport’s easy-come, easy-go character, he said.

“We have a pretty aggressive marketing campaign in the Baltimore-Washington and Pennsylvania area – My BWI – and that’s all aimed at helping people understand the amenities we offer, the competitive advantage we have over other the other airports and that has gone a long way toward continuing the growth that we have,” Smith said of one of his initiatives.

Smith has also led the airport on a capital building campaign, including a new connector between Concourse D and Concourse E, which will provide new gates for additional airlines, new spaces for food and retail and a new security checkpoint that would allow passengers to be processed more efficiently. The connector will open later this year.

As a companion, Concourse E, the international terminal, will be expanded to add six more gates. Since he began, the airport has added more international carriers, including Norwegian Airlines, which offers flights to exotic locales, such as Martinique, Smith said.

The airport executive said they are also implementing new systems to make the processing of passengers more convenient and efficient.

“I think we are getting better at using technology to allow passengers to go through a strict security process without spending as much time in the lines or having to do a lot of other things they would have to do 10, 15 years ago,” he said. “That’s bringing efficiency to our international program that many airports do not have.”

Among other things, in August the airport will be introducing automated passport kiosks in international terminals that would allow a good portion of passengers to get through the customs process without seeing an agent. They are also introducing a mobile app that allows passengers to answer questions before entering customs, thus speeding up the process. Both products includes aggressive screening of passengers via technology.

The airport will also be opening a TSA Pre-Check enrollment office in the next couple of months to boost the number of participants in the program. Subscribers allow the TSA to do background checks on them, and if they pass, they can go through dedicated lines at the airport where they don’t have to do things like taking their shoes off.

Another, more personal, challenge for Smith has been informing minorities about the career opportunities available in the air transportation business. They’ve had some success in attracting minority-owned businesses to the airport and now over half of BWI-Marshall’s food and retail concepts are owned and operated by local minorities, he said. But there are many unexplored options.

“One of the struggles we have in this business is minorities are so un-exposed to life at an airport that they don’t see it as a career opportunity because they think you have to be a brain surgeon or something to be in this business,” he said. “So if my story can cause someone to get past the mystique associated with being in the airport business, this story would be worth it.”

Zenitha Prince

Special to the AFRO