Black History Month | Gary Nunley, Director of Airport Operations

February is Black History Month, a time to learn about and celebrate the Black community’s contributions to our country. This month we will highlight Black pioneers in aviation and also share stories from within our CommutAir family. Gary Nunley is a seasoned pro in the airline industry. He’s been with CommutAir for ten years, but his career goes back to throwing bags for United and U.S. Airways 18 years ago. He also spent time in customer service at Continental and customer service training with Republic Airways.

Today, he serves as Director of Airport Operations. As he describes it, the airport ops department is responsible for everything between the time a plane lands and when it takes off again. We met with Gary (virtually, of course) to talk about his career, his role at C5, and his experience as a Black man in aviation.

Your world expands with aviation. I think people, especially kids, are more rounded if they can recognize the world is so much bigger than what they see on the day-to-day. A career in aviation is one of the quickest ways to broaden your worldview, explore new places, and interact with different cultures. Aviation is unique in that it makes the world accessible to anyone at any time.

Tell us about your role at CommutAir

I started at CommutAir ten years ago as the Ground Services Training Coordinator in the Airport Operations department. Since then, I’ve been fortunate to work in several roles including Manager of Airport Ops Training, Internal Evaluation Program Manager, and Director of Airport Operations. As the Director of AO, I have ownership of all ground operations activities, including ramp handling, passenger handling, winter operations, catering, aircraft appearance, aircraft security, cargo, station performance and customer care. I am also the Go-Team Leader on CommutAir’s Emergency Response Team, responsible for the company’s onsite response to an accident.

How did you decide on aviation? What got you into the industry?

I grew up in Cleveland. When I was seven years old, my dad took me to Burke Lakefront Airport near downtown, where a local pilot was giving rides in his Cessna 172. I remember sitting up front, eyes basically level with the instrument panel, shaking with excitement. In an effort to calm me down the pilot looks over and asks if I want to try. Obviously, I said yes, and I grabbed the yoke. I have been hooked ever since.

What’s been your experience as a Black man in aviation?

I try not to spend time thinking about race in the context of the industry. I try to focus on my work and let it speak for myself. And while there is underrepresentation in our industry, I don’t think it’s the fault of the industry itself.

I think it is essential to appeal to Black and underrepresented groups and introduce to them the world of aviation. We should be doing this early on in their educational career, whether that be middle school or high school. It’s important to engage these communities and articulate what opportunities exist. By doing this we broaden the pool of qualified candidates from diverse backgrounds even beyond what’s available today. That’s something I do on a personal level and promote the industry to folks in my circle.

When it comes to representation, I think there is always room for improvement. However, in my experience at CommutAir, my race has never been a factor in my ability to advance and improve. In fact, leaders at CommutAir have believed in me and encouraged me to take on roles/tasks that may have fallen outside of my comfort zone at the time.

Is there a moment in Black history that influenced you or helped shape your career?

Growing up, my parents stressed the importance of understanding what struggles they faced growing up and also the struggles of their parents. Provided in the larger context of the Black experience in America, it gave my siblings and me an understanding that we should be grateful for the hard work of those before us in the fight for equality and civil rights.

As a backdrop to my career and education, this simply means that I’m always aware that the opportunities I have today would not have been available to my grandfather, for example. My mom and dad also drilled into us the importance of hard work, doing a job right the first time, and not tossing in the towel when things got difficult. My dad worked a job he didn’t like for 39 years to provide for our family of seven. These lessons have served me well over the last 18 years and have been consequential to my success in the aviation industry. My career is influenced broadly by the Black experience overall, but more narrowly by my own Black history.

 What is your favorite part of your job or working at C5?

Two things stand out. One is cliché, and that’s the people I work with. I have an amazing team who simply make my job easy. Without the relationships built over the last ten years, this job would not be nearly as enjoyable.

The second thing is working for a company like CommutAir. I left Republic to join C5 in 2011. At the time, CommutAir was much smaller, made up of about 270 employees and 21 Dash-8 turboprops.

At first, I was skeptical about joining such a small operation, but one thing stood out. Our leadership was willing to let you work beyond the scope of your job duties to move the company forward.

This does not happen at larger airlines. At CommutAir, I’ve able to take on projects that helped move the company forward and also allowed me to become a well-rounded airline leader. That is a structural element to CommutAir’s culture that I hope doesn’t change, even as the company continues to grow.

Is there a lesson you learned when you were younger that you still carry with you today?

When I first started my career, my grandfather said to me, “If you ever get an opportunity, say yes. Even if you don’t know how to do it, say yes and then figure it out.”

I have lived by that rule. As a result, in addition to my duties as a Director here at C5, I also chair the Regional Shared Audit Program, an industry audit program made up of five regional airlines in North America. I’ve traveled the globe working as a global aviation safety consultant for IATA. I have had the privilege to work with airlines and ground handlers in Africa, New Zealand, China, and Europe on ground handling, cargo and security. All of this was generated from opportunities that came up at CommutAir to which I said “yes”.

What advice would you give a Black kid about aviation?

Your world expands with aviation. I think people, especially kids, are more rounded if they can recognize the world is so much bigger than what they see on the day-to-day. A career in aviation is one of the quickest ways to broaden your worldview, explore new places, and interact with different cultures. Aviation is unique in that it makes the world accessible to anyone at any time.

For career advice, whatever industry you go into, take advantage of every opportunity. No job or role is too small. Before I was Director of Airport Operations, I cleaned thousands of airplane bathrooms. Seriously thousands of lavatories – I did the math!