Maintenance Director Paul Ridgeway looks back on four decades of evolution at TPA
It was February of 1983 when Paul Ridgeway first walked through the doors of Tampa International Airport. The 22-year-old Tampa Bay Tech graduate had been working in the air conditioning business since he was 16 and he had just become a father.
“I was actually offered the job the day my first child was born,” recalled Ridgeway. “I think the good Lord knew I needed more money because I just had a daughter.”
The job came with a big raise, but some late hours.
“I was told at the time, ‘You’re being hired as a midnight man, and you might be a midnight man your entire career.’ I said, ‘Sign me up!’”
Little did he know, he was signing up for four decades of caring for one of the best airport facilities in the nation.
After 39 years of working for the Hillsborough County Aviation Authority, Ridgeway is now retiring as Tampa International Airport’s Director of Maintenance. Over the past decade alone, he’s managed an estimated $42 million budget and a team of close to 220 employees across 10 different sections including electrical, HVAC, electronics, building maintenance, fleet, projects, airfield maintenance, landscaping, systems operations and maintenance and administration.
His fingerprints can be found on nearly every single construction project at the Airport over the past 20 years, and the improvements he’s made along the way have saved the Airport millions. It’s safe to say that Ridgeway knows the inner workings of TPA as well as anyone.
A BALANCING ACT
Working overnights and weekends, Ridgeway would often be the on-call maintenance duty coordinator. Back in those days, the Maintenance team was comprised of fewer than 50 people to keep the Airport up and running, and overnight he was the sole person on-call to respond to any emergency.
“You’d deal with power outages, water line breaks, floods – all of those things were kind of routine then,” said Ridgeway, who would sometimes have nightmares about things going wrong.
But the stress of the job was balanced out by the excitement of the Airport.
“My kids would come visit me on the weekends and we’d ride the shuttle cars and get ice cream. They grew up in this environment. It was a treat for them and a treat for me to see them light up like that.”
Ridgeway worked alongside many of the original employees who helped open the Airport in the early 1970s. And as those employees retired, Ridgeway was given numerous opportunities to move up.
“I wanted to become the head of the HVAC team,” Ridgeway said. “I never imagined I would be where I am today.”
INPUT FROM THE EXPERTS
As airports across the country grow, they often rely on outside consultants to help plan, design and build expansions.
At TPA, the Maintenance team is often front and center in the design process, helping to imagine and develop facilities that make life better for everyone.
“Airside A was the first time the Maintenance team was involved in a construction project from the very beginning,” said Ridgeway. “By being involved in the design, we were able to add certain elements that would make the building easier to maintain, more efficient, and less costly.”
He was part of the planning for Airside E, Airside C, the new Rental Car Center, SkyConnect system and planning for the future international and domestic Airside D.
“We always ask how can we be better? How can we be more efficient?”
A perfect example is the newly opened Central Utility Plant located near TPA’s Control Tower.
“It’s the most efficient plant we’ve ever built,” said Ridgeway, who worked with the City of Tampa to get enough reclaimed water to run the Airport’s chillers, saving millions and millions of gallons of drinking water each year.
But it hasn’t all been easy.
OVERCOMING OBSTACLES TO REACH SUCCESS
Ridgeway remembers back to one of his biggest achievements, one that got off to a rocky start.
After 9/11, the Airport was ahead of its time in building a new inline baggage system to allow for TSA screenings.
“We built it from design to completion in just over 18 months to meet the need,” said Ridgeway. “It was the very first multi-user baggage screening system anywhere in this country.”
But the first phase of the project, which delivered baggage to Airside E, had a hiccup on the first day. The glitch delayed hundreds of bags heading to Delta customers.
“That was something that turned my hair grey over time,” Ridgeway said. “It was stressful, but you have to have the attitude that we will overcome this, and we did. It’s not about the problem, it’s all about the resolution.”
When asked about his biggest achievement at the Airport, Ridgeway joked, “Two-ply toilet paper.”
That’s because in 2018, when the Airport was negotiating a new janitorial contract, Ridgeway had higher quality rolls written into the contract at the request of his wife and many others.
“Even that came with challenges,” said Ridgeway. “When we got the new two-ply toilet paper it started running out too fast because there are fewer sheets on the roll. We solved that by finding a roll that had no core. We had more capacity, so we could keep our two-ply toilet paper and enjoy it without running out.”
THE AMERICAN DREAM
Out of everything, Ridgeway says he’s proudest of his team and says he’s always tried to give them the same opportunities he had.
He was originally scheduled to retire in December but decided to stay on a bit longer to ensure a successful transition as employees moved into the new SkyCenter One building and other projects were wrapping up.
“I’ve got a lot invested here,” Ridgeway said. “The last 5 months working with [incoming VP of Maintenance] Ben [Robins] has helped me get comfortable with stepping away.”
When that first day of retirement actually arrives, Ridgeway says he plans to start spending time on the boat that’s been sitting in his backyard, restoring his father’s classic 1965 Buick Riviera, and fixing up an old family lake house, which will become the new home for him and his wife, Candy.
As for advice to other young maintenance workers who wish to advance at TPA?
“Let this Airport get under your skin and be part of you,” Ridgeway said. “Take care of it like you own it and speak up when something is not right. Hopefully many of them will get to retire here like me. Being a hometown kid and knowing what this place means to the community, I feel privileged to have done what I’ve done.”