MCI’s Melissa Cooper – Continuing Her Quest for Growth, New Experiences and Success

Photo above  In 2021 Melissa Cooper was manager of Kansas City’s Charles B. Wheeler Downtown Airport (KMKC). 

By Penny Rafferty Hamilton, Ph.D.

Melissa Cooper recently became their first female director in the history of the Kansas City Aviation Department. With over 25-years of extensive airport management and aviation experience, Cooper is well-prepared to lead Kansas City International Airport (KMCI) and, also the Charles B. Wheeler Downtown Airport (KMKC) into the future.

Melissa Cooper

In 1991, Cooper began her aviation career. Over the years, she built an impressive resume of accomplishments. Her early experience as Flight Operations Scheduler at Executive Beechcraft led to Ground Operations at Kansas City International, next Vanguard Airlines System Control Manager, then Assistant Airport Manager at the historic Charles B. Wheeler Downtown Airport, next to Deputy Director/Airport Manager at New Century AirCenter (KIXD) and Johnson County Executive Airport (KOJC). Beginning in 2014, Melissa was Manager of Field Maintenance at Kansas City International Airport (KMCI). By 2017, Cooper became the first female Airport Manager at Wheeler Downtown (KMKC). Along the way, she earned a Bachelor of Science in Aviation Technology and a Masters in Aviation Safety. Cooper pursued the Accredited Airport Executive (A.A.E.) credential awarded by the American Association of Airport Executives (AAAE). Did I mention she earned her Commercial Pilot, Airplane Single Engine Land Instrument rating, too?

How did you first get inspired to work in the aviation industry?

“My first memory of being interested in aviation was in the third grade when NASA rolled out the ‘Young Astronauts Program.’ At that time, I truly believed I would be an astronaut. Additionally, my uncle was in the Air Force, flying fighter jets, living in various parts of the world. As a child, I recall receiving unique Christmas presents representing the places he lived and traveled. My father had taken pilot training lessons in college, so when his daughter showed interest in aviation, he was more than excited to take me to airshows to share the experience together.”

What is your first memory of aviation?

“In high school, I knew that I wanted to be a corporate jet pilot, so for my 16th birthday my parents provided me an introductory flight experience at the Kansas City Downtown Airport. I remember the nervous excitement climbing into the Cessna 152 and observing the pilot start the engine and taxi to the runway. After departing, the pilot told me to grab the yoke and start flying. I didn’t realize that I would be ‘at the wheel,’ making turns over my home and community. On that day, I solidified my decision to pursue flying and ultimately my aviation career.”

Who inspired you the most?

“I have had an extraordinary career, working alongside many supportive mentors, who have treated me like their daughter and have invested their time and talents to teach me about all aspects of the industry. Of these mentors, Al Gorthy and Mike Roper were the two who inspired me the most and challenged me to work harder and continue my quest for growth, new experiences, challenges and successes.”

(L-R) In 2013, Michael Roper, MKC Airport Manager, Bryan Orr, Signature Flight Support, Melissa Cooper MKC Assistant Airport Manager, and Kyle Eiserer, then President of the Kansas City Business Aviation Association are pictured on the flight line.

Advice for other women inside our industry or those thinking about aviation and aerospace?

“I have two pieces of advice that I have continued to give women entering the aviation industry. First take the word ‘just’ out of your vocabulary. So many times, women unintentionally devalue their role or position by saying. ‘I’m just in Operations’ or ‘I’m just a private pilot.’ My second piece of advice is to tell women to apply for that job! It has been my observation that women typically will look at a job posting, review all the areas of responsibility, and focus on the small amount of experiences they don’t have or aren’t as strong in. The potential job candidate then either doesn’t apply or focuses on the areas of weakness during the interview, rather than the other eight items that they have excellent experiences and capabilities. During the hundreds of interview panels that I have participated in, I have very rarely seen a male applicant focus on their weaknesses. So I encourage women to apply and focus on their strengths! Don’t count yourself out of the job by not applying!”

Additional background readers should know: 

Melissa Cooper stands in front of the unique fountain art piece in the new Kansas City International Airport terminal. The futuristic design speaks to the bright future for the airport.

In 2019, the WTS Greater Kansas City Chapter named Cooper their Woman of the Year. “Melissa is active in making sure women are a prominent part of the Kansas City’s aviation industry and ensuring the next generation also has the chance to succeed, as well.” WTS International has more than 8,000 members and 67 professional chapters. WTS mission is to attract, sustain, connect, and advance women’s careers to strengthen the transportation industry. In 2023, Melissa Cooper earned the “Women Who Move the Nation” award from the Conference of Minority Transportation Officials.