All Articles Leadership Inspiration Spotlight on Association Leadership: Air Transport Association's Nicholas Calio

Spotlight on Association Leadership: Air Transport Association’s Nicholas Calio

4 min read


Nicholas Calio is president and CEO of the Air Transport Association, the nation’s largest airline trade association. Prior to joining ATA, Calio was Citigroup’s executive vice president for global government affairs, overseeing government affairs globally. He also served as assistant to the president for legislative affairs, formulating and implementing White House strategy on all legislative issues for Presidents George W. Bush and George H.W. Bush. SmartBrief’s transportation editor, Angie Giroux Scheide, spoke with him about his leadership philosophy and the challenges facing the airline industry.

Describe your leadership philosophy.

The best leaders that I have worked for and with lead, rather than manage. They speak their mind and keep their word. They understand the importance of independent strategic thinking and building strong teams. That is what I endeavor to do while creating an environment that encourages communication, strong relationships and taking responsibility for delivering outcomes. I also tell those I manage that they should work with me, not for me.

Tell us about the first time you were someone’s boss.

No matter when you become a boss for the first time, you do so armed with your own experiences — good and bad — from your own managers. When I first managed people, I took those experiences with me, working to emulate the best leaders and also learning from what didn’t work well. I did then, as I do now — motivate people to take ownership, work thoughtfully and proactively to achieve their objectives.

When you’re looking to hire, how do you decide if someone is right for your team?

I look for people who are smarter than I am, who demonstrate they can listen, can build consensus and will make tough choices. I also look for people who are good at what they do, confident in their abilities, willing to speak their mind and also function as a contributing member of a high-power team. I look for people who like what they do and are motivated by doing that work well. If you are not having fun doing what you are doing, you probably are not in the right job.

What is the biggest challenge your industry is facing this year?

The airline industry quite literally connects people and goods around the world. Commercial aviation drives more than 10 million jobs and 1.2 trillion in economic activity. It is third, behind only energy and farming, in its contribution to the U.S. economy. And yet, Fortune magazine ranks it dead last in profitability of 53 industries that make up our economy. We need to address the tax, regulatory and infrastructure impediments that keep this industry from contributing at an even greater level. We are advocating for a National Airline Policy that would create an environment that would enable U.S. airlines to be globally competitive by addressing current taxation/regulation, infrastructure and energy challenges. Such a policy would restore and enhance U.S. airline industry viability, increase air service, boost economic growth, expand exports and create more well-paying U.S. jobs.

What is the biggest challenge your association is facing?

The White House has proposed, and the Congressional Super Committee tasked with debt reduction is considering, tripling the security taxes to $7.50 per departure, and adding a $100 departure tax to every passenger and cargo flight. These taxes combined would cost the airline industry and its customers $36 billion over the next 10 years and as many as 181,000 U.S. jobs next year alone. Air travel today is taxed at federal rates that are higher than alcohol and tobacco – products that are taxed to discourage their use. Additional taxes on the airline industry, which has lost $55 billion and 160,000 jobs from 2001-2010, will pressure fares, cause service reductions and, as such, cost jobs. We need the government to stop looking at this industry as a very efficient tax collector.

Looking outside of Washington, whose work do you admire most?

I have and have had the privilege of working with so many great leaders, both in Washington, and outside of the Beltway. It would be hard to say whose work I admire the most. Many of the leaders whose work I admire have similar attributes. They lead without ego, and understand the work is what is important. They listen intently. They are decisive. They motivate.

If a recent college graduate came to you and said they one day wanted your job, what advice would you give them?

Understand what motivates others. Relationships are hugely important. Build them, cultivate them. Most importantly: You absolutely must love a challenge.