Balram Bheodari oversees a plethora of details at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, from the cleanliness of restrooms to emergency response. But as the airport’s interim aviation deputy general manager, he’s also now in charge of the big picture.
In July, the man known around Hartsfield-Jackson as “B” was promoted, stepping into the role vacated by Robert Kennedy, who left the airport to join a consulting firm.
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution recently talked with Bheodari about his career and new post:
Q: What did you do before joining the airport in 1999?
A: I spent 22 years in the U.S. military, most in Army aviation. I was a helicopter pilot, did a number of different things in the Army as an aviator, including flying nuclear and chemical weapons in Europe. I came back to the states for some advanced schooling and then on to become a leader of a team writing military doctrines and regulations. My last assignment was here in Fort McPherson.
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Q: Why did you decide to join the military?
A: I was just a little over 19 when I joined the military. I was born and raised in South America, in Guyana. And at the age of 19, I migrated to the United States with my father. Back in Guyana, after I finished my education, I was a high school teacher over there. And when I came to New York, I always had this desire to do more, and wanted to fly. And I found that the military was a great opportunity. And so I was reading the Reader’s Digest one day and I found this 3-by-5 card and I filled it out and next thing I knew, I signed on the dotted line and I was in the military. At the time the Army had just come out of Vietnam.
Q: Why did you decide to take a position at the Atlanta airport?
A: I retired at a very young age, in my early 40s. After I retired, I said I was going to spend some time finishing my basement, and after I finished my basement, there was not much else to do except to keep track of time until my wife would come home from work. In the military, we’re very structured and time means everything to a soldier. So when my wife says she will come home at 4, and 4 or 5 comes and she is not home, eventually I start tapping my finger. So she said, ‘You need to go find yourself a job before we find ourselves in a difficult situation.’
Q: What does your job involve now?
A: It involves all aspects of the day-to-day operations of the airport. This is a big airport. We handle 2,700 operations a day. Over a quarter of a million passengers a day. On a daily basis actually, I’m getting a notification of something — for example a pilot could declare an emergency, and we respond — and if the incident mushrooms into something larger, then I will make my way out to the scene.
Q: What are the biggest challenges the airport is facing right now?
A: The biggest one we’ve got to get complete right now is opening up the international terminal. And I’m responsible for the activation of that, meaning opening up the facility. We have to have all our tenant users ready, their standard operating procedures in place, their emergency procedures in place, the training for everyone, so opening day if something goes wrong they know what to do, they know where to go, they know who to contact. We have so many things we have to do that I’m afraid we may miss something that nobody thought about. But we have enough eyes now looking at it.
Q: What are the past examples of terminal openings that you most think about as lessons to learn from?
A: A system failure on opening day. Two of the biggest examples are Heathrow and Denver — their baggage system failed. The issue that they had is not so much that the system failed but that the employees didn’t know what to do because they received their training so early in the process that they forgot on opening day. [For us], there is some training that is going to be done, and then it is going to be ongoing until opening day and then after opening day.
Q: Why is one of the airport’s priorities to reduce the hassle factor for passengers?
A: [If we didn’t], No. 1, you’re tarnishing the City of Atlanta and Hartsfield-Jackson’s image. No. 2, you lose that customer. Although you have a monopoly, you want that customer to repeat their business with you. The third thing is passengers have a choice. They could drive to Birmingham, they could drive to Charlotte, or they could jump in their car and drive to their destination.