'Mayor' keeps BWI flying Like a small town, airport takes work to operate smoothly

October 03, 1998|By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan | Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan,SUN STAFF

People throughout Baltimore-Washington International Airport were itching, sneezing and coughing, flights going out of Pier D were postponed, and confused passengers were clamoring for an explanation.

In the midst of that mess March 6, 1997, Theodore E. Mathison, executive director of the Maryland Aviation Administration, strode to the middle of the pier with a bullhorn to assure passengers that officials were laboring to figure out what was wrong. (Inspectors later determined a Mace-type product had been sprayed in the concourse.)

Mathison, the "Mayor of BWI," rarely makes appearances before his constituents, the millions of passengers who pass through BWI every year.

During the 13 years that Mathison, 66, has been in charge, passenger traffic and international capacity have doubled, revenues have more than doubled, profits have more than tripled and, in 1997, BWI pumped about $4 billion into the state economy.

Still, few BWI regulars know Mathison's name. Intensely private, he tries to deflect attention from himself. Even if he grants an interview, he won't talk much about his role at BWI. "It's really a team effort," he says. He credits his crew of about 430, including administrators, conveyor-belt handlers and the maintenance workers he once headed.

But what he does is a tough balancing act. He must placate BWI neighbors who complain about noise and the sprawl that comes with an expanding airport while he helps increase the sprawl and noise by marketing BWI as a place to fly into and out of.

Even Mathison's opponents find it hard not to like and respect "Ted."

Praise from opponents

"His job is twofold. It is to administer that airport efficiently, which he does outstandingly, and to carry out the policy of his superiors, making BWI as monetarily profitable as possible," said Del. Michael W. Burns, who represents the communities near BWI. He and Mathison have clashed on such issues as pollution of waterways by de-icing fluid, but Burns says, "My problem is not with him; it's with the policy. He is a delightful man, one of the politest people I've ever met."

Polite is a word many use to describe Mathison. Arlene Feldman, regional administrator for the Federal Aviation Administration's Eastern Region office, calls him "a true gentleman." Lewin Maddox, who represents Glen Burnie on the BWI Neighbors Committee, has disagreed with Mathison repeatedly but finds him a "very likable person."

Mathison, a former Army officer, is soft-spoken and dresses impeccably.

He refused to talk about his wife of 44 years, Ellen, or his children -- two sons, ages 29 and 41, and a daughter, 34 -- not wanting his job to impose on their lives. He asked several times that his children not be identified.

What he is forthcoming about is forestry.

Growing up in Summit, N.J., Mathison spent afternoons exploring the woods behind his home. "I was just very interested in the outdoors," he said. "To this day, I very much enjoy trees, identifying trees and so forth."

Challenge in flying

He graduated from Purdue University in Indiana with a bachelor's degree in forestry. While he was working at a summer camp at Henryville State Forest in Indiana, a friend with an amateur pilot's license invited him to go flying.

"It was a J-3 Piper Cub, a yellow two-seater," Mathison said. "I was a little uneasy, having never been up in a small plane. But it was so enjoyable looking down at the Earth and seeing the countryside. There's something about flying that's difficult and challenging and gives you a great sense of accomplishment. It's hard to describe, but it's really fulfilling. I knew that that's what I wanted to do."

He enrolled in flying classes, then enlisted in the Army to go through flight school.

Seven days after he enlisted -- too late to sway him -- he got a letter offering him a research job with the U.S. Forestry Service.

As an Army helicopter and airplane pilot, he served two tours in Vietnam, rose to the rank of colonel and served in the Department of Army headquarters, the Office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Department of State.

All he'll say about his years of combat is, "Vietnam was challenging."

In 1978, he started his next career, landing a job as chief of maintenance at BWI.

By now, he knows every inch of the place, regards it as the town he governs. He knows its rhythms and its stories. Like the time in the late 1970s when he spotted a "little old lady" driving down a runway.

"So I pull her over and say, 'Can I help you?' and she looks at me and she says, 'Is this the road to Glen Burnie?' How she ever got there is beyond me."

Closed by snow

The hardest day he ever put in at BWI was in February 1979.

Mathison had been maintenance chief less than six months when a light snow was forecast for Feb. 19. By 6 p.m., the airport had to be closed because of 23 inches of snow piled on the runways. Plows couldn't remove it all.

To open the airport, a crew spent all night removing snow with snow blowers and then plows, and digging out fragile runway lights.

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