When Linda Markham takes over as president of Cape Air in a few weeks, she will assume a much bigger role than overseeing 1,000 employees and planning growth strategies for one of the largest independent regional carriers in the country. She will also be the only woman president of a North American airline — and among only a few worldwide.
Markham, 49, took an unusual path to get there, rising from human resources director to chief administrative officer before being named president. Typically, the top executive posts go to pilots or maintenance managers, jobs traditionally held by men, aviation industry specialists said.
“It’s a boys’ game,” said Marcia Ferranto, chief executive of WTS International, an advocacy group for women in transportation. “Boys were brought up with planes and trains and cars. You very seldom will see a little girl’s room with airplanes all around it.”
Markham, in fact, had no aviation experience when she joined Cape Air in 2002 after 25 years working in recruiting and human resources. She started where she was comfortable, creating a full-fledged human resources department, and learned the operations side of the business by being a “serious note taker” in meetings.
One of her biggest challenges? Learning the often incongruous codes for airlines and airports. Cape Air is 9K, for instance; Fort Myers, Fla., is RSW.
Colleagues say Markham has advanced because she is smart, compassionate, and understands all sides of Cape Air, from operations to finances to company culture.
Markham said the secret of her success is more straightforward: “I’ve worked my butt off.”
Several other women have run airlines, including Colleen Barrett, who was president of Southwest Airlines from 2001 to 2008, and Lesley Kaneshiro, who was chief executive of Hawaii’s Island Air until late last year. But the total is “under a handful,” said Amy Laboda, editor of Aviation for Women magazine. “You can count them and you probably won’t need to use your thumb.”
Markham grew up in Westfield — the youngest of six, which she says taught her early on how to negotiate — and got an associate’s degree in business and retail management at Holyoke Community College. She worked as a recruiter for several staffing firms, then moved into human resources at a high-tech engineering firm. After a stint doing HR for the Visiting Nurses Association in South Dennis, she decided to take time off after the birth of her third child.
But less than a year later, a friend told her Cape Air wanted to ramp up its human resources department. And she knew she had her work cut out for her when founder and chief executive Dan Wolf asked during the interview if she was married and had kids.
“I knew he needed me because clearly he didn’t realize some of the questions he was asking me were not appropriate during an interview,” she said. The moment has since become a running joke between them.
Markham said she became hooked on the fast-paced, reactive nature of the business, thriving on the need to respond to bad weather or mechanical problems or security measures. She also likes flying to the Caribbean to meet with Cape Air employees, even if they barely leave the airport. “Once you get bit by the bug, it’s really hard to leave,” she said.
Cape Air, which also operates Nantucket Airlines, has long had a culture of gender equality. Wolf was recognized by the Massachusetts Women’s Political Caucus in 2004 for his efforts to hire and promote women. Half of the management team at the airline are women, and women make up 11 percent of the pilots, almost triple the national average.
“Regardless of gender or any other factor, people get ahead who deserve it,” Wolf said.
Markham is Cape Air’s first woman president. Dave Bushy, the retiring president, said Markham combines a keen business sense with emotional intelligence, balancing human considerations with the rule book when it comes to employee matters.
“She meets a mechanic and says, ‘How’s your wife?’ — by name,” Bushy said. “She meets a gate agent and says, ‘How’s your husband? I know he wasn’t doing well.’ ”
“It isn’t because of her gender,” he added. “It’s because of who she is.”
Cape Air has undergone many changes during Markham’s 11-year tenure. The airline grew from 300 to 1,000 employees and more than doubled the number of cities it serves, to 37. It had to adjust to post-9/11 security measures at the airline’s smaller airports in Hyannis, Provincetown, Nantucket, and other locations, which previously were not required to screen bags or passengers. Last year, Cape Air’s 225 pilots formed the airline’s first union, and Markham was instrumental in setting up a committee to deal with contract issues.
Going forward, Markham will be involved in resolving challenges facing the airline, including a pending pilot and maintenance worker shortage and replacing the airline’s fleet. Cessna is no longer making the nine-seat model that Cape Air flies, and the carrier is looking for a new manufacturer to replace all its aircraft over the next 10 years, while expanding the fleet to more than 100 planes.
Markham knows her new title means more work and more stress. But she is prepared for the added responsibility. “The buck is going to stop with me.”