Station chief oversees mammoth US Airways/American operation at Charlotte Douglas

By her count, Terri Pope’s airline career has almost ended at least three times already.

There was the time when, as a new employee, she ran a jet bridge into a passenger terminal. Then there was the time Pope – raised a Southern Baptist from Kentucky – found herself serving drinks at bar mitzvahs in Boston to supplement her meager airline wages.

And in 2005, worn out after two bankruptcies and numerous leadership changes at US Airways, she thought seriously about quitting.

Now Pope, who has been in charge of US Airways operations at Charlotte Douglas International Airport since 2000, is tasked with integrating her company and American Airlines at the combined carrier’s second-busiest hub.

“This is my fourth,” Pope said of the merger. “I ought to be pretty good at them by now.”

She directly oversees about 2,500 employees, including the workers who sell tickets, check bags and direct US Airways and American jets from the airline’s control center.

She’s responsible for making sure the airline’s 650 daily Charlotte flights run smoothly, as the companies combine thousands of intricate processes that cover everything from printing boarding passes to getting bags on the right planes to rewards for outstanding employees.

Much of Pope’s time now is spent planning, and meeting with employee groups to discuss and explain upcoming changes. Last week, the leaders of the Philadelphia hub came to Charlotte to talk about integration.

For now, American and US Airways are still flying separately under their former brands, though they have combined some of their operations. They have about 1 1/2 years until they completely merge operations.

“You snap your fingers, that’s gone,” she said. “It has been an incredible amount of work behind the scenes just to get the codesharing in place, the club reciprocal agreements, top tier customers with the mileage,” she said.

Pope hopes to avoid problems such as those that arose in 2007, when America West and US Airways merged their reservation systems. Computer problems plagued the airline, and delayed flights and long lines of angry passengers filled Charlotte Douglas.

“That was a challenge. I think that was a good lesson,” Pope said of the snafu. “We’re not going to make the same mistakes.”

And as the airline’s top executive in Charlotte, Pope speaks up for her hub.

When people complain that Charlotte Douglas doesn’t have enough options – US Airways and American account for more than 90 percent of all flights at the airport – Pope said she points to the wide array of destinations people from Charlotte can reach because of the airline’s presence.

“Talk about options,” said Pope. “Anywhere in the world you want to go, you can access from Charlotte.”

And she said she doesn’t have any concerns about the hub in Charlotte now that the city is the second-largest in the new American Airlines, behind Dallas/Fort Worth.

“We want to be the best,” said Pope. “The size of it really doesn’t matter.”

‘Her goofy style’

After America West and US Airways merged in 2005, Pope rode through the terminal on a cart dressed as Queen Charlotte. She’s frequently seen at the airline’s charitable events, such as the company’s annual jet pull. But Pope said she prefers to do her work behind the scenes.

State lawmakers on both sides of the protracted struggle over who should run Charlotte Douglas – the city or a new, independent regional commission – said they didn’t know Pope, and hadn’t heard from her during the debate.

Around the airport, Pope smiles and waves at US Airways and American employees as she walks the terminal, joking with one manager about the height of her towering high heels and hugging another. She said she needs to get out of her office more to keep current with front-line employees, and winces and clutches her stomach in mock-pain when she recalls not remembering the name of a worker she recently saw.

She worked closely for more than a decade with former Aviation Director Jerry Orr, who retired in December after losing his city job in the bruising airport governance battle. Orr said he saw Pope almost every day at her office in the terminal.

“She came up from the bottom, so she understands, and, I think, gets a lot of respect,” said Orr. He said she’s a level-headed manager, and ticked off situations when he saw her keeping employees calm: The Sept. 11 attacks, US Airways’ two bankruptcies, and numerous winter storms.

He recalls Pope forcing him to ride the cart with her dressed as the queen.

“That’s her goofy style, and not exactly my style,” said Orr.

Haley Gentry, special assistant to the aviation director, said Pope’s goofiness belies her serious attitude.

“She can be very serious, and she can whip folks into shape no question,” said Gentry. “She has a way of patting you on the back and kicking you in the tush at the same time.”

A long journey

Pope’s journey to Charlotte started in Kentucky, where her uncle worked for Ozark Airlines.

“He would let me go with him every once in a while,” Pope said. “On a Saturday I’d go and watch him load (bags), and it was fascinating. I loved it.”

At 19, Pope started working for Air Kentucky Airlines at Owensboro Airport. The carrier flew 15-seat propeller planes on short hops.

“We flew from Owensboro to Bowling Green, Kentucky,” she said. “I’d get off, sell the tickets, load the bags, get back on, go to Frankfort, Kentucky, do the same, go to Cincinnati, do the same. Frankfort, Bowling Green and back to Owensboro, two or three times a day.”

Pope moved to the airline’s billing department, and Kentucky Airlines became a commuter carrier for Allegheny Airlines, which became US Air in 1979. It was a time when few women rose in airline management. When Pope told her bosses she wanted to work in the airline’s operations, they pushed her instead to become a flight attendant.

“I wasn’t interested,” said Pope. So she took a job in the airline’s club for elite fliers, moving from Louisville, Ky., to Pittsburgh and then to Boston. There, she was a bartender to make ends meet, a job she didn’t tell her Southern Baptist father about. When Pope realized she was making more money doing that than working for US Air, Pope considered quitting.

“I was real tempted to give what I really wanted to do up, because it was like, ‘Alright, this isn’t adding up,’ ” she said. But Pope stuck with the job, moving to New York’s LaGuardia Airport for a rotation where she worked at every ground job the airline had.

Pope’s life took on the nomadic character common among airline employees, with a succession of promotions taking her to different stations up and down the East Coast: Back to Boston to run the ticket counter, to Charlotte to supervise the 1989 merger with Piedmont Airlines, to West Palm Beach and then Washington’s National Airport.

Along the way she got married and had a son. He was in first grade when Pope moved back to Charlotte to supervise the airline’s hub. He’s in college now, and Pope hasn’t moved since.

Coaching from experience

Pope said she coaches employees by using her own mistakes as examples. Gate agents frustrated by passengers asking obvious questions, such as where the gate they’re standing in front of is? Pope admits she was sometimes curt with travelers herself when she worked the job.

When an unprepared employee screws something up, Pope said she tries to remember her manager took pity and didn’t fire her when she rammed a jet bridge into a terminal.

Pope won’t say what airport the incident happened at, only that it was in the north. “I was hysterical. I knew I was going to be fired. And they didn’t fire me, and I couldn’t believe it,” she said.

But Pope said she takes a firm line about some things. “I believe in second chances,” said Pope. “It’s the repeating mistakes I don’t have a whole lot of tolerance for.”