The Conversation: After Sept. 11, Lezley Mix served her country in security at KCI

07/19/2014 7:00 AM

07/19/2014 6:40 PM

Lezley Mix of Kansas City was recently hired as assistant airport manager for Charles B. Wheeler Downtown Airport. Before that, Mix, who has a Bachelor of Business Administration from Park University, was airport security coordinator for eight years at Kansas City International Airport, where she had worked her way up from administrative assistant in airport operations. This conversation took place at Downtown Airport.

You are moving from a big title at a big airport to an assistant position at a small airport. Did you get in trouble?

(Laughs and claps her hands.) It’s funny you should say that because everyone who knows me knows I kind of say it like it is, so that would not be surprising. But no. Both airports are controlled by Kansas City Aviation Department, so they are kind of the same thing.

Airport size doesn’t make a difference to me. Some things about the new job will be the same: making sure the airport is in compliance with federal regulations. One thing that will be different is I was pretty much alone in some aspects of my job at KCI and here there is a cool team of people I get to work with.

What is it like to be a female manager in a predominantly male field?

Challenging. Sometimes. But mostly enjoyable.

What have you learned that you could share with other women managers in male-dominated companies or industries?

The challenging part is communication. Men and women are wired up differently and communicate differently. I have learned to be direct and to the point with men.

Women try to sugarcoat and spare people’s feelings and sometimes tiptoe around an issue, and men appreciate it when you just come out and say it. My husband pointed out that women like to talk things through and just vent and men have an instinct to want to fix things. So it helps sometimes to say, “I don’t need you to do anything. I just need you to listen to me.”

You started your aviation career in airport operations. What does that entail?

Maintaining the air side of the airport: the runways, the taxiways, the parking aprons where the aircraft park to ensure ultimate safety and full compliance with FAA regulations. We also respond to emergencies.

Why did you move from operations to security at KCI?

I was really affected by 9/11. I was really pissed that that happened on United States soil, and I’m still angry about it.

Did you take it personally because you are in aviation and the attack involved aircraft?

No, I took it personally because I’m an American. So when the airport security coordinator position came open, I asked for it.

Some people thought I was crazy because of the tension after 9/11 and all the new security regulations that came out. Sometimes there were headaches, but I loved it. I never served in the military — I let myself get talked out of it when I was 18. So that was my way of contributing in my little corner of the world, at my hometown airport.

Were you at the airport on 9/11, and if so, what was that day like for you?

Yes. It was hectic. We were in the middle of the terminal improvement project. I was teaching a class for contractors on how to drive out on the airfield, and we decided to go ahead with the class after the attacks.

The room was full of big burly guys. I usually made them take off their sunglasses so I could be sure they were awake, but that day I let them keep them on because a lot of them had tears streaming down their cheeks under those big wraparound sunglasses. After class a lot of them stayed to help however they could.

Airport employees, shop workers, people who worked for the airlines, everybody stayed to help these stranded passengers. Nobody left. We had aircraft parked everywhere.

Besides 9/11 what are some other memorable things that have happened at the airport?

Well, no day is the same. Unplanned things happen every day.

Sometimes, in security, the challenge is to keep a straight face once you realize there is no threat. Before the public got used to the new rules, there were many instances where passengers didn’t remove batteries from certain products and bags would start to vibrate and you’d have to get the owner to come down on the ramp and open the bag. Usually it was a toothbrush or a razor, but other times it was other items and that’s when it was very hard to keep a straight face.

On my very first day on the job in operations, I had a runway closed because of snow. All the guys were on the west side clearing snow, and it was starting to accumulate on the east side. It was snowing hard.

The next thing I know, an airplane making a turn hits some ice and goes off the taxiway and the nosegear goes off into the grass. Nobody was hurt but it’s a big deal when a plane goes off a taxiway.

So my phone’s ringing, the radio’s going crazy, and I just called my boss and said, “OK. I’ve got a runway closed, I’ve got crews clearing, and I’ve got an aircraft that just slid off a plane off the taxiway. Which one do you want?” (Laughs.) That’s how you do it.

Reach Cindy Hoedel at choedel@kcstar.com. Follow her on Twitter, Facebook and the Star’s Chow Town blog.

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