Haley Gentry’s aviation career began with a college internship that ultimately led to the CEO’s office of the seventh busiest airport in the US. Gentry credits a variety of experiences that have fueled her 32-year career at Charlotte’s airport. She never anticipated that aviation was what she might want to pursue as a career. But the minute that she walked onto the tarmac at CLT as a college student—there was an energy, a camaraderie, a teamwork aspect to the work. She was immediately drawn to the energy and excitement, and 32 years later she is still there as the first female chief executive of Charlotte’s airport–the top economic driver in the Charlotte region.
“When you’re an intern, if you open up your mind to listening and take advantage of the opportunities, you can learn so much more than what your assignment is. That was what happened with me,” said Chief Executive Officer of the CLT Airport Haley Gentry in an oral history interview with Sullenberger Aviation’s Collections Team. “I got to learn so much and instantaneously knew this is something I could really get up, day after day, and come to the office.”
Her path to the director’s role has been through many of the business units of the airport, giving her a deep and wide understanding of what it takes to run a business that represents a $32 billion dollar economic impact in North Carolina–about 5% of the state’s GDP. After the internship, she wound her way through airport operations, making her way through public affairs, working on economic development projects with Airport Director Jerry Orr, managing concessions and partnerships in the business office, finally ending up as a Deputy Director that made her first in line for the Interim Director role–a role that became permanent after a year in the job.
“There are lots of people who contribute to the trip of one individual that are never seen–that most people don’t even know exist. But they are all…essential,” said Gentry “I often say that airport is a team sport, and it takes every job: whether you are an executive, or whether you are cutting the grass, whether you are working on electrical systems on the airfield or in the federal employ (what we do) can’t happen without every piece of that. It’s a very intricate and complex system.”
Jerry Orr, the former Airport Director, hired Gentry. He gave her the opportunity to learn at his side. He spent time with her – pointing out the good things she did and the not so good things and that helped her when she later sat in his chair after his retirement.
“Jerry helped me do what I do today. I worked so closely with Jerry and had that access …to really understand the dilemmas and the challenges that he faced as a director,” said Gentry “I’m still in touch with him to this day; we are still very close.”
Women in aviation often don’t have many female mentors; however, Gentry had two growing up in Charlotte in her grandmothers, who both worked throughout her childhood.
“I didn’t really realize what I was seeing when I was a kid, but both of my grandmothers worked. I just thought everybody’s grandmother did that,” said Gentry. “ Well, that was rather unusual for that time period. It was very normal in my mind for women to be in the workplace. I mean, ‘doesn’t everyone’s grandmother get up and go to work?’”
In the industry, Gentry also maintains a close relationship with Terri Pope, the retired managing director for American Airlines in Charlotte. She also works hard to seek out women in the industry to share her experience with in a mentoring role.
“I think aviation is an amazing field for women,” Gentry says “It is a priority for me (mentoring) young women who are coming up in aviation. I do everything I can to pour energy into that, to share my experience…to advocate for them. We are starting to see a lot more women coming into the aviation community. I think it’s very exciting, but it’s also good for the traveler.”
Gentry says that if you think about who comes through the doors of the airport–it’s not just men. The whole world shows up on CLT’s doorstep. The airport serves different ages, different sexes, different backgrounds, different religions, different ethnicities, and they all need different things.
“And if we are not pouring diversity into the product we produce, we’re missing the mark,” Gentry says.
A native of Charlotte, Gentry grew up going to her grandmother’s house on the West Side of Charlotte. That house, in the high-noise zone of the airport, was eventually purchased by the airport. She remembers watching the aircraft take off over the yard–the kids would scream at the top of their lungs. You could see the whites of the passenger’s eyes, they were so close.
“I have fond memories of watching the airplanes at my grandmother’s house. I have watched the airport grow up; I’ve grown up along with it,” said Gentry. “I’ve watched it morph and change. It’s been really interesting to see what it has done for this community and this region.”
Gentry’s Oral History will be archived for use by researchers and along with other industry partners will be part of the Aviation City and Aviation Society exhibitions at the new Sullenberger Aviation Museum.
CLT Airport photo by photographer Jason Paul.
Overall, Charlotte Douglas International Airport provides $32 billion in economic output and more than 20,000 people work for the Airport and its business partners. This includes Individuals employed within one of the 35 retail shops, rental car companies, restaurants, cafes, and bars. Airport-related businesses provide valuable support for airlines and airport customers, and feed the state’s economy.