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Philly airport’s CEO goes where no one has gone before: her own podcast

To the podcasting boom that has brought us bingeable true-crime stories and wildly popular conversations, add another: One about Philadelphia International Airport from CEO Chellie Cameron.

Chellie Cameron, CEO of Philadelphia International Airport, speaks about podcasts during a meeting last week.
Chellie Cameron, CEO of Philadelphia International Airport, speaks about podcasts during a meeting last week.Read more--- Jose F. Moreno / Staff Photographer

Last year, Philadelphia airport executives partnered with Temple University — which has a Japan campus — to throw an event in Tokyo, to encourage direct flights from Philly to Asia. Japan Airlines executives attended, as did Japanese companies that do business in and around Philadelphia.

The event put PHL one big step closer in contention, said James Tyrrell, the airport’s chief revenue officer. "You have to build that relationship with the airline executives who are responsible for committing billions of dollars of their company’s assets for each single route that’s served here,” Tyrrell told his boss — and anyone else who’s listening — on the latest episode of the podcast “Taking Off with Chellie Cameron.”

To the podcasting zeitgeist that has brought us bingeable true-crime story lines, wildly popular conversations — topical, comedic, raw — and many less-downloaded niche programs, add one more: a podcast about Philadelphia International Airport.

It covers construction and art projects, business development and logistics, and moments that show the very human side of air travel: language barriers, grieving, and encounters with new spaces. In CEO Chellie Cameron, the show also has a namesake host who is a pioneer of the format among major airport executives.

Nearly 21,000 people work at PHL and Northeast Philadelphia Airport, and about 1,000 are city employees. Cameron, an Air Force veteran, became CEO three years ago. She wanted a new avenue to communicate with a large workforce — beyond newsletters and town hall meetings — and to spotlight the people who make the airport run.

“My background is finance, it’s numbers, and so this was a new part of thinking about airport management,” said the MBA and CPA-holding Cameron. "It’s about telling the story.”

The look-behind-the-scenes approach may be turning out to have a broader appeal. The podcast made a soft-launch debut in October, and Episode 5 — with Tyrrell detailing how the airport works to attract new flights — goes live Monday (It’s available on the airport’s website, and on iTunes). So far, the podcast has racked up more than 600 downloads — which doesn’t count those who might have streamed it — throughout the country. Cameron suspects the two listeners in Montana are her in-laws.

That element of familial pride applies to her guests on the pod, as well. Before the launch, “I kept getting emails from some of them saying, ‘When’s the podcast going to be out? I told my mom.’ ”

It’s not unusual for airport executives to communicate with employees through something like a newsletter. "She has taken the extra step of using a new medium for our industry to connect with folks,” said Ramon Lo, publisher of the trade outlet Airport Experience News, who talked to Cameron about her podcast on his podcast. He believes she’s likely to be the first executive of a top airport to record such a show.

Cameron’s guests so far have dug into projects that are part of the airport’s $2.4 billion capital development program. On another episode, Nicole Maddox, airport operations officer supervisor, details the language services that PHL provides for foreigners going through customs — and shares what happens when a plane unexpectedly diverts to the airport.

Given the ongoing federal government shutdown, she likens the show’s emphasis on giving employees a pat on the back, to the positive effect of travelers thanking TSA officers as they work without pay to screen passengers. “That means a lot to those TSA employees,” she said, adding: “I think it means the same thing to our employees when we stop and say thank you. Everyone has to come together to make this place work.”

For its part, during the federal budget impasse, PHL is providing 450 complimentary meals to TSA workers on Mondays, for as long as the shutdown lasts. As the operator of the airport, “the most frustrating part of the shutdown is we don’t have control,” Cameron said.

But she said there are things the airport can do to express gratitude for the workers caught in the middle, worrying about being able to pay the rent. “I’m not naive enough to think that a turkey sandwich on a Monday is going to make all the difference in the world, but sometimes, it’s just saying thank you.”

Cameron joined PHL in 2011, serving first as deputy director of aviation, finance, and administration, and then as chief operating officer. When she became CEO, in January 2016, among her goals was to “transform the customer experience,” a term that encompasses “my employees, other stakeholders at the airport, and the passengers.” The podcast is of a piece with that agenda, she says.

On Episode 2, Cameron interviewed Leah Douglas, PHL’s chief curator and director of image, about the airport’s role in creating a traveler’s first impression of the city. Over the past two decades, the airport has put on more than 400 art exhibits. “One particular passenger said, ‘I actually enjoyed my layover,’ ” Douglas recounted, referring to a comment she’d recently seen on Instagram (there is a hashtag: #phlairportart). “That’s a win,” Cameron replied.

Though she describes herself as “not a communications specialist," Cameron makes for an empathetic interviewer. On Episode 4, she talked with Liberty USO CEO Joseph Brooks about the airport’s new USO lounge for members of the military and their families. Cameron recalled her own first visit to a USO, in Philly in the early 1990s, when she was being sent to Turkey after the Gulf War. “I was really scared, and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect,” she said, but the USO “made her feel more comfortable about the trip.”

At another point, Cameron steers the conversation to Gold Star families — those who have lost a family member in military service — and apologizes for getting choked up about it. Because PHL is so close to Dover Air Force Base, and the mortuary there, “every one of those Gold Star families that are bringing husband or wife, mom and dad, or son and daughter, home for the last time, they fly into Philadelphia International Airport,” Brooks explained. “Our volunteers meet and greet every one of those flights.”

The podcast lends itself to allowing these personal stories to unfurl. A staffer on Cameron’s communications team initially suggested the audio format, but it took a long drive from Chicago to Philly for the idea to resonate with her.

Last March, Cameron and Tyrrell, the chief revenue officer, were returning from a business trip to Asia, and made it as far as O’Hare by plane. PHL had closed because of high winds, and Cameron was anxious to get home. So they drove all night — and listened to the Los Angeles Times' hit, true-crime podcast “Dirty John” to stay awake. By the end, Cameron said, “I was hooked."