By Portfolio Editor Roz Hamlett
Susan Baer left an indelible mark on the Port Authority, becoming the agency’s first woman aviation director and a highly respected transportation industry pioneer, breaking down silos and cracking the glass ceiling of an industry long dominated by males.
Baer, who died last week at the age of 65, was the only person, man or woman, to manage all three major metropolitan airports run by the Port Authority — JFK International, LaGuardia and Newark Liberty International. Before transitioning to the agency’s Aviation Department, she also ran the Port Authority Bus Terminal and the Lincoln Tunnel.
During her 37-year agency career, Baer’s accomplishments were all the more impressive coming as they did at a time the Port Authority was a male-dominated agency. Baer, who eventually became an influential role model for so many young transportation professionals, understood the power of a helping hand. Throughout her career, she was an enthusiastic supporter of women in aviation and regularly provided others with access to her network.
Diane Papaianni, general manager of New Jersey Airports, occupies what was once Baer’s old office at Newark Liberty. “I think of her often. I learned so much from her over the years. Her ability to take control of a room and manage the most complicated issues with a level of confidence and enthusiasm always amazed me. “
“On the one hand there was Sue the leader sharing her aviation and PA experiences with you, and on the other hand, there was Sue sharing her family life and baking skills with you,” Papaianni recalled. “In the midst of her hectic day, she always remembered to ask you about your family as well.”
Sharon DeVivo, president of Vaughn College of Aeronautics and Technology, where Baer served on the board for the last 23 years, said she was instrumental in helping develop the college’s first airport management curriculum. “She was invested completely in the success of all our students,” DeVivo said. “She touched thousands of students.”
Pat Foye, the Port Authority’s executive director, said that in turn for her “professionalism, integrity and leadership” at the Port Authority, her colleagues rewarded her with “fierce loyalty.”
That sense of loyalty and respect was widespread. Lillian Borrone first met Baer in the 1970s when she was one of the young college leadership fellows rotating among various departments at the Port Authority. In recent years, Borrone, former director of Port Commerce, shared an important connection with Baer while working on behalf of the Women’s Transportation Seminar (WTS), an international organization dedicated to the professional advancement of women in transportation.
“She understood the importance of being an exemplar – especially to women, but also men as well,” said Borrone, who believes that the experience Baer gained at the Port Authority, working at both the staff and line department levels, gave her both special insight and opportunities to pass along skills of great value.
On 9/11, Baer was at the helm of Newark Liberty and watched the destruction of the World Trade Center before helping to shut down airport operations, then restart them in the anxious days following the attack.
Baer was also focused on the people needs of airport travelers, not just brick and mortar issues. The customer service representative program, the “Red Coats,” was developed and flourished under her leadership. One of her major goals while at the Port Authority was advocating for NextGen, the satellite-based technology that allows planes to fly more efficiently using GPS instead of ground-based radar.
Tom Bosco, who succeeded Baer as Port Authority aviation director, said, “Sue Baer was the consummate professional, a skilled manager and an inspirational leader. I always admired her energy and steadfast commitment to both her family and the job. Even while battling illness, she maintained a grueling schedule that could have easily grounded the strongest among us.”
A graduate of Barnard College with a master’s degree in business administration from New York University, Baer held numerous memberships in professional organizations, including the Aviation Women’s Association, Airports Council Institute, the American Association of Airport Executives, the Newark Museum and the Wings Club.
Summing up her career in a 2013 interview with USA Today, Baer said, “What I’ve tried to do is give other women opportunities and that’s something all women should be doing. It was hard for us to get here, but we ought to be making it easier for people who are coming behind us.”