From Top Gun to Tucson Airport Authority
By Jay Gonzales
There was never a doubt in Danette Bewley’s mind that she would have a career in aviation.
The only question was whether it would be in the air or on the ground.
Bewley grew up in San Diego and, spent a lot of time at the Naval Air Station Miramar – the same Miramar where the U.S. Navy Fighter Weapons School, also known at Top Gun, was based. She was the daughter of a Top Gun pilot. Her uncle, U.S. Navy Capt. Dan Pedersen, now retired, is credited with creating the training program that’s reached legend status through the motion pictures “Top Gun” and “Top Gun: Maverick” starring Tom Cruise.
“I never, ever contemplated any career outside of aviation. It didn’t even exist in my mind,” said Bewley. “As I’ve grown older, I’ve thought maybe I should have been a doctor or lawyer. Those are professions that never occurred to me, not even once.”
As the daughter of an elite fighter and combat tested pilot, Bewley said her first interest was also to be a pilot.
“I really did want to follow in my father’s footsteps,” she said. “Things were a little bit different for women in aviation at that time. So, I went to school, and I got a bachelor’s degree in business administration with an emphasis in aviation, closely followed by a Master in Management, and years later a Master of Public Administration.”
Bewley is in her fourth year as president and CEO of Tucson Airport Authority, which operates Tucson International Airport. She joined TAA in 2012 and was the VP of operations and COO for the five years before she was named president and CEO at the end of 2019. She has been in the aviation business for 34 years having held management positions in her hometown at the Port of San Diego/San Diego County Regional Airport Authority, with the Reno-Tahoe Airport Authority, and with the Jacksonville Aviation Authority.
Q: Once you knew that being a fighter pilot was not in the cards for you, where did you direct your career in aviation?
A: My interest in aviation was really focused on becoming a pilot, but what I didn’t understand is how much there is in aviation. It’s not just being a pilot. You can do other things and still be in aviation. You just have to find what fits you best. Because of my bachelor’s degree program, I got picked by the FAA to go learn to be an air traffic controller. I did not like that. I went through the first phase of training, and it really wasn’t for me, so I decided to focus on airport management.
Q: At what point did you start to think you wanted to run an airport or believe you had that in your future?
A: I always knew I wanted to. I’m not sure I always believed I would. There are only so many airports in the United States. I honestly never thought I would leave San Diego. When an opportunity came up, I was talking to my CEO and I remember this comment because it’s been very meaningful for me and my career. She said, “Sometimes you need to leave in order to succeed.” That really made a lot of sense to me. I wanted to continue to grow and learn so I knew I had to leave (San Diego) and gather the experience somewhere else, so that is what I did. I kept building my career and making strategic moves. I’ve really been fortunate in my career to have had great mentors.
Q: What attracted you to Tucson?
A: Being from San Diego, I wanted to be closer to what I considered home. I really liked the climate in the area. That was one thing I looked at, but really it was the airport. The airport really needed some help to get from where it was to where we are now. You really have to invest in the projects, the programs, the initiatives, the people to build the airport to where it is. I wanted to be a part of that. I just thought that Tucson was a community that was really growing, and the airport needed to grow with it in different ways, not just in its size, but how it operates. I really wanted to help be a catalyst for that.
Tucson is a lot more like the town I grew up in in San Diego. I grew up in a suburb called La Mesa, kind of a small town in a big city. That’s what I like about Tucson. Even though it is a big city, it still has a small-town feel. People are kind. People are helpful to one another. People support one another. There’s a lot of collaboration and that is what I enjoy. Although I’m born and raised in San Diego, I actually consider Tucson my home.
Q: Put yourself in the mindset of an occasional traveler through Tucson International Airport, what do you want the airport to have and what do you want it to be in the next five or 10 years?
A: I want the journey to be pleasant, and I want to remove as much stress from the experience as possible. We think a lot about that. How do you park your car or are you dropped off by a relative or an Uber? How do you get to your airline? Is our signage in the airport helpful to you? Are our volunteers helpful? Are the TSA friendly when you go through the checkpoint? Just getting through checkpoints has got to be one of life’s major stressors. Then, you get through and you recompose yourself and head up to your gate. We want people to be able to get a glass of water or a cup of coffee or a sandwich and not feel the stress. I can sit down and relax by my gate. Maybe I have time to plug in my laptop and do some work. Really, what I want is an stress-free experience. But at the core of everything, it’s always safety, security, and customer service every day, all the time. If I can get all three of those and just feel like, “Okay, great. I’m here. I can get on my plane, and I go.” That’s what I want. I want it to be seamless.
Q: You have accomplished a lot. What is next for you?
A: What I have learned about myself is that I am never satisfied with the status quo. I often wonder if this is fighter pilot genetics running through my blood stream. I want to challenge myself and my team to be the best we can be as people and as airport management professionals. I want the choices I make, and ask my board to support, to be forward-thinking yet systematic with great, tangible benefit for the future of this fantastic airport system and community – programs, projects and initiatives and the philosophy of safety, security, and customer service at the core. I want the things we are doing at the TAA for TUS and RYN to be the airport model for other airport leaders to follow. Last, I want our community to know deep down that we are ‘Nonstop for Tucson.’
READ THE FULL SPECIAL REPORT HERE.