Spend a few minutes with airport executive John Tiliacos and you get the sense the Florida Tech grad would like nothing better than to personally escort airline passengers to their seats, fasten their seatbelts and make sure their tray tables are in the upright position.

“What gives me a great deal of pride in this business and in the work I do every day is making sure that we take great care of our customers,” said Tiliacos, Vice President of Operations and Customer Service at the award-winning Tampa International Airport in Florida.

His career – born out of a boyhood fascination with flight – has soared in the decades since he earned his Bachelor of Science in Aviation Management from Florida Institute of Technology.

A year after graduating from Florida Tech in Melbourne, Tiliacos was general manager for TWA in Nassau, Bahamas. Five years later, he joined American Airlines, where over the next two decades he would climb through the ranks during a professional journey that included layovers in New Orleans, Chicago, Tampa, Dallas/Fort Worth and Los Angeles.

He managed food and beverage operations, directed cabin design and in-flight products, oversaw flight tower operations, led cargo operations, and spearheaded industry-leading projects to launch in-flight Wi-Fi and lie-flat seats.

After two years as American’s managing director at LAX, Tiliacos joined the executive team at Tampa International, where his responsibilities range from airport concessions to security and terminal operations. TIA served almost 17 million passengers in 2013 and has begun work on a $1 billion expansion project.

“Whether it’s managing an airport, whether it’s managing an airline or flying for an air carrier, it’s an extraordinarily exciting and great field to be in,” Tiliacos said. “There is never a dull day in this business.”

Still, as much as his duties may change, there remains at least one constant source of inspiration.

“There is no smell like that of jet fuel,” he said.

With Florida Tech unveiling the first-ever Bachelor of Arts in Aviation Management degree offered 100% online, we spoke with Tiliacos recently about his education at Florida Institute of Technology, his work at Tampa International and the future of the aviation industry in the United States.

Q. Tell us about your duties and responsibilities as Vice President of Operations and Customer Service at Tampa International Airport.

As Vice President of Operations and Customer Service, I am responsible for the day-to-day safe operation of the airport. I have responsibility for Terminal and Airfield Operations, Public Safety and Security, Parking and Commercial Ground Transportation, Customer Service and Airport Concessions. In addition, I also have responsibility for all General Aviation operations, including the three GA airports that we own – Peter O. Knight Airport on Davis Islands, Tampa Executive Airport and Plant City Airport.

Q. Tampa International recently was honored for excellence in customer service by Airports Council International. What is the secret to TIA’s success?

There really is no secret to our success. It’s about providing our guests with world-class service and a user-friendly experience. We routinely engage our customers to learn what they think of our airport and the services we offer, and we understand what they value in their travel experience and what’s important to them. It’s all about the experience. Customers want a hassle-free experience from the moment they enter the airport property until they’re comfortably seated on their aircraft. It’s all about the journey through your airport; they want to know they can find a parking spot, check-in with their airline if they need to, make their way through security and have time to dine and shop. Offering free Wi-Fi is a huge hit with customers, but having sufficient gate seating and restrooms that are extraordinarily clean and inviting is key to customer satisfaction.

Q. How is Next Generation (NextGen) technology changing the aviation industry? Specifically, what will it mean for commercial air travel, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2014?

NextGen technology is long overdue in my view. This GPS satellite-based capability will allow aircraft to fly more direct routes, reduce fuel consumption and noise, increase capacity and improve safety, while allowing aircraft to fly in closer proximity to one another. So, lots of pluses with NextGen.

Q. Tampa International served nearly 17 million passengers in 2013 and recently unveiled a $1 billion expansion plan. How will that project change the customer experience?

When we embarked on our Master Plan in late 2011, we adopted a number of guiding principles. First, we committed ourselves to growing efficiently, thoughtfully and affordably by maximizing the capacity of our existing facilities and reducing the need to construct a north terminal for more than 20 years. Secondly, maintaining a high level of customer service was an important element of our planning and decision-making. Adhering to the core aspects of the original terminal design by maintaining passenger comfort and convenience, keeping walking distances under 700 feet and maintaining automated people mover concepts was critical.  Moreover, after more than 40 years, or since the airport opened in 1971, we are revamping our entire airport concessions program. This will dramatically enhance customers’ dining and shopping experiences here at the airport.

Q. In addition to Tampa International, the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority also operates three General Aviation airports, Peter O. Knight, Plant City and Tampa Executive. What role do those facilities play in the region’s economy?

The Authority has a vibrant system of General Aviation airports located throughout the county, and these airports are drivers for the local economy. Collectively, the system contributes an estimated $42.8 million, which is generated from on-airport businesses, on-airport construction projects and spending from visitors flying in for business or pleasure. And those airports primarily serve as reliever airports for Tampa International Airport. It helps keep the smaller aircraft and private operators at those airports, and keeps us from congesting the international airport and getting the smaller guys in the way of the bigger guys, if you will.

Q. When and how did you develop an interest in aviation?

I became interested in aviation while in high school and had a burning desire to learn to fly. I would spend weekends roaming the airport where I grew up, talking to pilots and flying with them. There is no smell like that of jet fuel or noise like the sound of a jet engine as the air/fuel mixture ignites!

Q. Why did you decide to enroll in Florida Institute of Technology’s Aviation Management program?

I did my research of flight schools with an aviation management program and decided FIT had the better and more affordable program. I had a great experience in my four years at Florida Tech; great instructors. And what really impressed me about the curriculum at Florida Tech was it was a very diversified curriculum. It didn’t only focus on aviation-related courses, but there were business courses, aviation law classes – just a very diverse variety of courses that helped me through the four years.

Q. How has your Bachelor’s in Aviation Management helped your career?

I think my degree helped me get my foot in the door. Beyond that, success in one’s career, as I’ve learned, comes from working hard, driving for results, building relationships, and operating with high moral and ethical values.

Q. What advice would you offer to students interested in a career in aviation management?

If that’s where your heart is, do it! It’s an exciting business. There’s never a dull moment, certainly not in airline or airport operations. There are good days and not so good days, but I wouldn’t trade my career for the world.  And as for flying, there’s no better feeling!

Q. What do you consider to be your greatest professional accomplishment to date?

I think I’ve accomplished a lot in my career and I have a lot to be proud of and thankful for, but I haven’t done it on my own. With each career move, I’ve tried to surround myself with people who are smarter than me and capable of helping me become successful. I’ve held many roles over the past 30 years in this business, and if I’m able to look back on each role and, with confidence, be able to say that I left that department and that team in a better position than when I first arrived, I’ve succeeded.

Q. Which aspects of your career give you the greatest satisfaction?

The privilege of working with and learning from a great team of people that are equally focused and driven, and the ability to mentor and help others grow professionally. What gives me a great deal of pride in this business and in the work I do every day is making sure that we take great care of our customers … from the time they enter the airport’s parkway until they park, all the way through the check-in process, through the security process and until they get comfortably seated in their seat on the airplane. That’s what gives me the greatest satisfaction; making sure customers are well cared for by a great team. And that’s what has afforded this airport such great accolades by the aviation community.

Q. What are the biggest changes you have seen in the industry since beginning your career?

The industry, especially the airline business, has transformed itself dramatically in a good way. The industry is safer, more competitive and customer focused, innovative and much friendlier to the environment.

Q. You are a licensed pilot. How much recreational flying do you do?

Not as much as I would like to.

Q. Are your children interested in a career in aviation?

Not at all. My wife and I are blessed with three wonderful kids; two are police officers and the youngest aspires to be a veterinarian.

Watch our video interviews with John Tiliacos to learn more about his interest in aviation management, his experiences at Florida Tech, and his roles and responsibilities as Vice President of Operations and Customer Service at Tampa International Airport.

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