Meet the CEO: Sean Donohue of DFW Airport

The aviation business pro takes a long-term view for the future of Dallas' international hub.

Sean Donohue, 53, got into the aviation business as an accounting clerk for United Airlines. When he left the company 25 years later, he was in charge of its operations worldwide. He then served as COO of Virgin Australia, before taking the helm of Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport last fall. Donohue says he was intrigued by the chance to focus on strategy and take a long-term view, versus the quarter-to-quarter emphasis at airlines. He and his wife also were impressed by the region’s “extraordinarily friendly and helpful” people—something that came across even when visiting prospective schools for their children. “There was a maturity level with students we hadn’t seen before, in all the other cities we’ve been in,” he says.

EARLY DAYS

My dad was career military. I was born in Paris, France, grew up in central Massachusetts, and went to Boston College. 

FIRST JOB

I worked as a toll-taker on the Massachusetts Turnpike.

IF NOT AVIATION

Both my mom and dad were teachers, and I could see myself doing that. It’s a high-impact job.

MANAGEMENT STYLE

I like to be visible. I like to get out and be with employees, customers, the community. I tend to get impatient when it comes to delivering things faster. I encourage people to be more decisive and to think outside the box.

STRENGTHS

Even though I’m decisive, I consider myself to be a good listener—and I’ve got a lot to learn here [at the airport]. 

WEAKNESSES

As my wife tells me all the time, I don’t smile enough. So I can come across as being too serious.

LESSONS LEARNED

Don’t believe everything you’re told. Get in there and see what the real issues are. 

BEST ADVICE RECEIVED

Being in the airline and airport industry, you never take risks with safety, but with other business issues, it’s okay to take a well-researched risk. … That’s what technology companies do really well. 

MOTIVATION

I’ve had experiences where I’ve had to go in and fix things, and you get satisfaction from turning things around. What I’m enjoying here is, how do you take something that’s successful and make it even more successful?

GOING GLOBAL

Our greatest opportunity is the continued focus on growing our international business. … I believe there are opportunities for the region as a whole to become more global. We have all of these advantages; we need to really optimize those advantages from a global perspective.

FAMILY

My wife, Susan, and I have five children, ranging in age from 13 to 24. We have “bookend boys” and three girls in the middle.

TRAVEL

When we were in Australia, we went over to New Zealand, which is one of the most beautiful places in the world. I still love going to Cape Cod in Massachusetts; we try to go up there every summer. And we’re really looking forward to exploring Texas.

DINING OUT

I’m probably the only person in this region who’s not a big fan of Tex-Mex food. It’s my boring Irish heritage.  

Newsletter

Keep me up to date on the latest happenings and all that D Magazine has to offer.

Comments