George Speake (’03) is the Executive Vice President/COO of the Orlando Sanford International Airport. He is a graduate of Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University with 27 years in the aviation industry, including four years of service in the United States Air Force. His Airport Management experience began in Alaska where he served as Site Manager and Airport Director during the transition of the Adak Naval Air Station to a commercial airfield. In addition, he served as the Airport Director of the Dare County Regional Airport in Manteo, North Carolina, and the Airport Director of the Garden City Regional Airport in Garden City, Kansas, before taking his current position. He is married with two children.
Discuss your career path since graduating from Embry-Riddle.
In order to discuss my path since graduation, I really have to share my time prior to enrolling at Embry-Riddle. I was a non-traditional student, as I returned to college when I was thirty. Prior to enrolling at Embry-Riddle, I completed a year of college at Ohio University, followed by four years in the Air Force. After my time in the Air Force, I managed the NAS Adak Airfield in Adak, Alaska, transitioning it from a naval airfield to a commercial service airport. It was then that I decided I needed to complete my education and enrolled at Embry-Riddle.
Following my graduation from Embry-Riddle, I was fortunate enough to be offered the position of Airport Director at the Dare County Regional Airport, which is located six miles from the Wright Brothers Memorial. I took this position in July of 2003, just prior to the 100th Anniversary of Flight, which was celebrated on December 17, 2003. The Dare County Regional Airport was host to all warbirds participating in the celebration as well as the closest airport for anyone wishing to fly in. During the eight-day long celebration, Dare County Regional Airport was host to hundreds of aircraft, handling over 9,000 operations from a 4,300-foot runway. Operating with a temporary tower during the event, there were hours where this general aviation airport was the busiest in the world.
In 2005, I was offered the position of Airport Director at the Garden City Regional Airport in Garden City, Kansas. The Garden City Regional Airport is an Essential Service Airport with a contract tower. My primary task while with this airport was to restore enplanements to the 10,000 annual passenger level, thereby returning the airport to Primary Airport status. This entitled the airport to receive $1,000,000 in AIP funding. This task was achieved in my first year and the airport now serves over 25,000 passengers annually.
In 2007, I was offered the position of Vice President of Operations and Maintenance at the Orlando Sanford International Airport, where I had worked as an Operations Supervisor while attending Embry-Riddle. In 2015, I was promoted to Executive Vice President/COO, the position I hold today.
What does your current role entail and how do you balance all of your responsibilities?
As the Executive Vice President/COO, I report to the President/CEO and have direct responsibility for the Operations Department, Police Department, ARFF Department, and Maintenance Department. I am also the Airport Security Coordinator and oversee the Noise Program. Additionally, I am directly involved in all construction projects at the Airport. Currently, we are undergoing the largest project in the Airports history, a $60M Terminal Renovation and Expansion. My days consist of a variety of meetings with current and prospective tenants, the FAA, TSA, and entities desiring to do business with the Airport, just to name a few. One of the best things about working for an airport is that you never know what the day will bring. An airport is like a city without a resident population. Therefore, all the problems that you can imagine a city experiencing can happen at an airport, along with the aviation specific issues, such as aircraft emergencies. And, or course, there is the pleasure of watching old friends reacquainting and families reuniting on a daily basis, not to mention people from the north walking into the sunshine in the dead of winter. All of which bring a smile!!
Balancing responsibilities is all about time management and appropriately delegating responsibilities. Putting a good team around you makes what can seem impossible, possible. I am fortunate to be able to do what I love and therefore I never feel like I am working.
What has been your greatest professional achievement in your career thus far?
Educating today’s youth about aviation and all the possibilities that it holds for them is important to me. While attending Embry-Riddle, I received two scholarships from the Florida Airports Council (FAC), the Florida Airport Industry Association. When I returned to Florida, I joined the FAC Education Committee, ultimately serving as the Committee Chairman for several years. This allowed me to “pay it forward” by participating in the selection of numerous scholarship recipients. I also currently serve on the Everglades University Program Advisory Committee for their Aviation Programs as well as the Program Advisory Committee for the Seminole County Public Schools Aviation Program. In association with the Seminole County Public Schools, the Orlando Sanford International Airport has created “Aviation Day.” Aviation Day is designed to educate K-12 and junior college students about the aviation industry. Tenants and consultants of the Airport are asked to man booths and set up static display aircraft for the students to visit and explore. All exhibitors are asked to promote their career field and explain to the attendees how they can follow a path to a similar career. I am proud to say that this last year, we had over 6,000 students and parents attend Aviation Day, many of which had never been to the Airport or onboard an aircraft. If even one of these students makes their way into an aviation career, then that would be my greatest professional achievement. Aviation Day is an annual event, so there’s many more students to go!
What advice do you have for students who are interested in working for an airport?
First and foremost, be willing to move. The Airport industry is relatively small. If you want to work at a specific airport and are having a tough time finding a job there, look elsewhere and keep an eye out for jobs at the airport you really want to be at while you gain experience.
Finding a mentor will help as well. Find someone that will let you job shadow, is willing answer questions, and someone who is willing to be a reference for you when that is needed.
Be open to positions that might not be exactly what you think you want to do as you never know where they may lead you. The more rounded you become, the more valuable you are to a future employer.
Join industry associations such Florida Airports Council, American Association of Airport Executives and Airports Council International. These associations can provide you with job leads, training, and will keep you on top of what is happening in the industry.
Finally, never stop learning! I always tell people looking for advice from me that they will never learn everything there is to learn about airports. They are ever changing. If you do meet someone who says they know it all, run far away!