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George Bean, b. 1924, Airport director

By BILL ADAIR

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 28, 1999


George Bean's airport -- most people called it by its given name, Tampa International -- wasn't like other airports.

For one thing, you couldn't buy a pack of gum there. Bean, airport director for three decades ending in 1996, didn't let the vendors sell it because he didn't want it getting stuck in the carpet, or on people's heels.

Which reminds us: Bean's airport had carpet. He sympathized with the weary traveler -- the globetrotting exec, the mom lugging a baby -- so he tried to make the terminal as much like a living room as possible.

Therefore, carpet. Therefore, no cabbies hanging around, smoking and telling jokes. Therefore, no hot dog stands or bagel bars. Fussy, hard-headed and obsessive, Bean detested clutter -- detested anything, really, that would make passengers uncomfortable.

What did it all mean? It meant Tampa International was the best airport in the nation. Maybe the world. That isn't the Chamber of Commerce talking. That's what business travelers said in survey after survey.

Bean was not without his quirks. Gravel-voiced and gruff, he deposited an endless chain of cigarette butts into a hubcap-sized ashtray on his desk. (People at the aviation authority joked that they were going to name the smoking lounges after him.) He had enough frequent flier miles to go to Neptune, but he hated to travel. (He once turned down a private tour of the Taj Mahal in favor of a nap.) He was such a workaholic that colleagues were afraid he would fall over dead the day he retired. (Probably out of stubbornness, he didn't.)

He made his share of blunders. He never understood the public outcry when people found out that he and other aviation authority officials were flying first class at public expense. He was perplexed when people criticized the authority for spending lavishly. (Bean's salary -- $220,000 when he retired -- was a forgivable extravagance.)

But in every decision he made, he put passengers first, something they didn't do at O'Hare, JFK, LAX or, heaven knows, DFW.

Airport designer Leigh Fisher sketched out a passenger-friendly airport and Bean carried out that vision with a vengeance. He counted the steps from the parking lots to the planes to make sure passengers didn't have to walk too far. He provided roomy, dependable shuttle cars that whisked people comfortably from "landside" to "airside."

To experience his legacy, take a stroll through Airside A, the newest of TIA's terminals and the home of Southwest Airlines. It's bright and airy, as inviting as the renovated main terminal at Grand Central Station. The phone booths are low so you can watch for your plane while making a call.

Even the arrangement of the seats is revolutionary. Instead of the long rows of cramped seats you see at other airports, Airside A has friendly clusters, as if Bean expected people to start a book group while waiting for the 2:10 flight to Baltimore. They could if they wanted to. The spacious clusters are offset from each other so you don't end up staring at a cranky stranger 3 feet away.

That's a tiny detail, but it typifies Bean's consideration for the exhausted, stressed-out flier. He understood that little things mattered.

Times staff writer Bill Adair, who covered the airport for five years, is working on a book about the crash of a jetliner.

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