She helped turn Charlotte into an airport mega-hub. But she started by loading bags.

Terri Pope, head of hub operations for American Airlines in Charlotte.
Terri Pope, head of hub operations for American Airlines in Charlotte.

When Terri Pope started her career in the airline industry 41 years ago, she wrote reservations for travelers on index cards, computed fares by hand from a list in a master price book and sometimes loaded the bags onto planes herself before setting off on a twice-daily circuit around small airports in Kentucky.

When she retires June 2, Pope will do so as the highest-ranking American Airlines executive in Charlotte, overseeing the world’s largest airline’s second-busiest hub.

“I never would have guessed I’d be working for the biggest airline in the world,” Pope told the Observer. She’s headed the Charlotte Douglas International Airport hub since 2000, and her career has coincided with the hub’s increasing prominence and the inexorable growth of the primary airline through mergers.

Pope’s career has spanned mergers, bankruptcies, the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks and every variety of bad weather that snarls air traffic. She said that now, as she steps down, she’s relieved the airline industry is out of the “survival years” and has the chance to grow again. American Airlines has been posting record profits, adding new jets to its fleet and expanding to new destinations.

“Two bankruptcies, four or five name changes, four mergers, a few days away from locking the door,” said Pope, 59. “Fast-forward and here we are. We don’t have to worry about our survival anymore.”

American Airlines operates about 650 flights a day from Charlotte Douglas, accounting for more than 90 percent of the airport’s total. That makes the airport American Airlines’ second-busiest – behind Dallas/Fort Worth – giving Pope an outsized role in Charlotte Douglas’ operation. More than 11,000 American employees are based in Charlotte, easily putting the airline among the city’s top 10 private employers.

The airport hub, unusual for a city Charlotte’s size, is also frequently cited by business and political leaders as Charlotte’s most important economic asset.

11,000 Number of American Airlines employees based in Charlotte

650 Number of flights American Airlines operates every day from Charlotte Douglas International Airport, its second-largest hub

90% American’s percentage of the airport’s total flights

Pope’s successor is Dec Lee, currently American Airlines’ vice president of engineering, quality and training. He started his career as a mechanic in the United Kingdom’s Royal Air Force, and previously worked at Northwest Airlines and Delta Air Lines. Pope said what impressed her when she interviewed him was his plan to go through employee training for all the front line positions at the airport.

“Employees need to see their leader,” said Pope, raising her arms in a touchdown sign.

Her airline career started in 1976, working for Air Kentucky Airlines at Owensboro Airport, a “wonderful little airline.” Pope was 19, and flew in 15-seat turboprops selling tickets, loading bags and taking reservations on a circuit between Bowling Green, Cincinnati and Frankfort. Kentucky Airlines became a commuter carrier for Allegheny Airlines, which became US Air in 1979.

“I’d compute the fare from a book about this thick,” she said, holding her hands about a foot apart. “We hand-wrote all the tickets...We had a computer – well, wait, actually we didn’t have a computer in the beginning.”

From there, Pope moved to work in the airline’s clubs and ticket counters at Pittsburgh, Boston, LaGuardia Airport, back to Boston and then to Charlotte, where she oversaw the 1989 merger with Piedmont Airlines. From there, she moved to West Palm Beach and Washington National Airport before returning to Charlotte for good.

Some of the hardest times the airline faced happened soon after, including a pair of bankruptcies by US Airways in 2002 and 2004. Pope recalled getting a phone call that told her she had to let about 100 people go – and then receiving another phone call the next day with the same demand.

“We weren’t sure we were going to be able to make payroll,” said Pope. “I was sobbing. It was a lot of burden. Can you imagine how the employees felt?”

In 2005, US Airways and America West merged. That was followed by the 2013 merger with American Airlines, which was then in bankruptcy protection itself.

Pope said that in the ensuing years, stability has returned. She’s encouraged that the company has said it’s committed to investing more in employees now, and said she’s learned to take more quiet time to contemplate decisions.

“Most of the time I didn’t, because it’s helter-skelter, hair-on-fire” running an airline hub, said Pope.

Now, she plans to spend more time with her aging father, her husband and her son, who recently graduated college. Pope knows switching from the 24/7 demands of running an airline hub will leave her with a lot more free time, which she hopes to fill largely with volunteering and getting more involved in local nonprofits.

So, will she find it hard to step back and watch from the sidelines?

“Oh, hell yeah,” Pope says, without hesitating.

Ely Portillo: 704-358-5041, @ESPortillo