Cayman Airways station manager to retire after 55 years at Tampa International Airport
Joe DeCesare remembers TPA when the terminal was a tiny building located off Columbus Drive.
There are many airport employees who weren't even born when Joe DeCesare began his career at Tampa International Airport in 1965. After 55 years, the Cayman Airways station manager holds a special record for longest tenure at TPA, even longer than the 1971-built facility itself.
“I’m 86," DeCesare said. "I just think it’s just time to take a break.”
DeCesare got his start in aviation at 20 years old when he took a job at New York’s Idlewild Airport, which was later renamed JFK after President Kennedy’s assassination. His father tried to convince him to take up a trade like cabinet-making but DeCesare knew he wanted to work in aviation.
“I took an airplane ride at the age of 10 years old and said, ‘This is where I want to be.’"
DeCesare was hired on by Delta Air Lines as a baggage handler and eventually worked his way up to being a ticket agent before he was drafted and sent to serve in the U.S. Army’s 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment patrolling the West German-Czechoslovakian border in the Alps.
When the Jeep he was driving hit a rock and became disabled, he was stranded on the mountainside for five days in the snow. To this day, he still has no feeling in his fingers due to the days of severe cold.
“That’s when I said to myself, ‘If I get out of here alive, I’m going south.'"
On his return to the U.S., DeCesare put in a transfer request with Delta for an open position in Tampa.
“Everything was outside. There were no jetways or anything like that,” said DeCesare. “It was just a quiet place. We had five or six flights a day. Everybody knew everybody in that terminal building.”
In 1971, he was offered a job as an assistant manager with startup airline Air Florida and within three years he was promoted to the station manager role.
“I was someone they had a lot of faith in,” DeCesare recalled.
Then came January 13, 1982, when Air Florida flight 90 crashed into the freezing Potomac River killing 74 of the 79 people on board the Tampa-bound aircraft.
Airline management put DeCesare on a flight to Washington to head up Air Florida’s crash site team. He was there as the crash victims, their luggage and the plane’s wreckage were pulled from the frozen waters.
“I was there a month-and-a-half and when I got home, I had to take a month off from work. I just couldn’t get my head on straight,” he said.
To this day, he still gets emotional thinking about the crash.
“I guarantee, every 13th of January, I don’t want to be bothered.”
The airline never fully recovered from the incident and its assets were eventually taken over by Midway Express, an airline that DeCesare never felt was the right fit for him.
Then came an unexpected call from a small international carrier, Cayman Airways.
“It was a different experience because I had never dealt with international flights,” recalls DeCesare. “The people were so fantastic.”
Things were so good, DeCesare stayed with the airline for the next 36 years. The airline’s unique culture and friendly repeat travelers allowed DeCesare to know many of his passengers on a first name basis.
“There’s probably over 300 or 400 of them that have my personal phone number, and they call me the day before they’re leaving to let me know they’re coming,” said DeCesare with a smile.
It’s the relationships with his coworkers and customers that DeCesare says he will miss the most. Many of them showed up for a special TPA retirement celebration hosted by Cayman Airways CEO Fabian Whorms. who brought thanks from the Caymanian people for his decades of service.
DeCesare’s final day will come at the end of June. He says he’ll be back to visit at the airport often and will finally have time to take vacation trips to the Cayman Islands to visit his many passenger friends.