San Jose Aviation Director John Aitken’s bags are packed and he’s ready to go.
The head of San Jose Mineta International Airport for the last six years isn’t leaving on a jet plane, though. Aitken is planning to retire in March after a 31-year career with the airport.
Aitken worked his way up from airport operations specialist in 1993 to director of aviation in 2017.
“I have had the privilege of working with the team at SJC and have witnessed remarkable changes to our airport, the aviation industry and our city,” Aitken wrote in a Nov. 15 letter to City Manager Jennifer Maguire. “Leaving this team is quickly becoming the hardest thing I’ve ever done.”
Aitken helped lead the airport through difficult times. After the 9/11 attacks in 2001, San Jose was the first city on the west coast to reopen its airport. Aitken was also an integral part of the airport’s $1.3 billion modernization projects in 2010, which included renovations of Terminal A and an expanded Terminal B.
“John’s leadership and forward thinking was instrumental in driving SJC’s rise to distinction as the fastest-growing airport in the country pre-COVID,” Maguire told San José Spotlight. “Although much has changed in the aviation industry, John has always been a constant and reassuring presence at SJC.”
His work has been recognized beyond the city. Aitken is included in this year’s Silicon Valley Power 100 from the Silicon Valley Business Journal—a list of Silicon Valley’s most powerful influencers and change agents “whose words cause ripples on Wall Street and whose decisions affect tens of thousands.”
Before taking on the official director role in 2017, Aitken served as assistant director of aviation from 2015-17 and deputy director of aviation from 2002-15.
In those 20 years of leadership, the city’s only commercial airport changed significantly. In addition to terminal renovations, the city built out a consolidated rental car facility and demolished the 1960s-era Terminal C. The airport rebranded its name and logo in 2022 to make it easier for customers to find and buy tickets.
Aitken was at the helm of difficult decisions, such as trying to find a balanced solution between downtown building heights and the airspace needed for airport operations. Aitken also said he solidified the partnership between the city, airport and Federal Aviation Administration to clear out what was once one of the city’s largest homeless encampments behind the airport and turn it into a park.
Aitken holds a bachelor’s degree in aviation management from Florida Institute of Technology, and an MBA in aviation management from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida. He is also a certified commercial pilot and flight instructor in single- and multi-engine instrument aircraft. He currently serves on the board of directors for Joint Venture Silicon Valley, a group that analyzes regional issues affecting the economy and quality of life.
It’s not clear who will fill Aitken’s position, but city officials said the search has already started—and they hope to find a candidate by March.
“John’s vision and hard work have consistently put SJC at the top of national customer experience rankings,” Mayor Matt Mahan told San José Spotlight. “We will miss his leadership as he embarks on a well-deserved retirement.”
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