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Always With a Safety Mindset

Michael Quiello, United's top safety officer, talks about the foundation of the airline's business: a proactive and uncompromising approach to safety and security

Author Stephen Lee Photography United Airlines Creative Services

United Airlines Creative Services

MICHAEL QUIELLO IS passionate about safety. It’s obvious in the way he talks about it. Analyzing a continuous stream of data with his team is in many ways a highly technical process, but Quiello sees his mission in very human terms: ensuring the well being of United’s customers and employees—every day and on every flight.

“Whether in the air or on the ground, our number one priority is keeping our customers and our people safe,” Quiello says. “It is the foundation of everything we do.” It’s a point Quiello often reinforces in his conversations with fellow executives, his team and United’s employees at the many airports he frequently visits.

“We know our customers want an airline that is safe and on time,” he says. “In 2009, we executed extremely well in on-time performance, ranking first among the major network carriers according to preliminary industry statistics, but never at the expense of safety. We know it can be frustrating if a flight is delayed because of a mechanical issue with the aircraft, but the bottom line is there is no such thing as a successful on-time departure unless it’s a safe departure. We trust our captains’ judgment implicitly.”

A former commercial airline captain himself, Quiello received his pilot’s license at age 17 and is qualified to fly everything from gliders and sea planes to most major airliners. “I’ve loved aviation all my life, including building model planes and rockets. I guess I’ve gone from balsa wood and tissue paper to the majestic Boeing 777.”

After obtaining a degree in civil engineering, he was commissioned as an officer in the Marine Corps, where he served as a jet pilot. Quiello, who has 28 years of experience in the commercial aviation industry, joined United in January 2009 as vice president of Corporate Safety, Security, Quality and Environment. Quiello has a polished and easygoing nature, not unlike an Ivy League professor in his dress and demeanor, but his commitment to continuous improvement, training and communication is intense.

As reflected in his relatively long title, another of Quiello’s and his team’s responsibilities is aviation security, which requires close coordination with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) and other regulatory agencies, both U.S.-based and international. He has served on a number of national boards, including the Air Transport Association’s safety committee and the executive committee of the Flight Safety Foundation.

One recent challenge for United and all airlines was posed by the additional security measures implemented by the TSA in late December. “Our teams, especially at our international airports, really rose to the challenge of not only meeting the TSA’s requirements, but maintaining our focus on safety, customer service and the integrity of our operations,” he says with pride, “an accomplishment that’s even more noteworthy given the high volume of customers we serve at that time of year.”

United worked tirelessly throughout that period to help develop the industry’s position. The key, according to Quiello, is not only meeting the security requirements, but ensuring that the safeguards are implemented with a sensitivity to the impact on the millions of customers that United, and all airlines, serve every year. He also points out that while commercial airlines compete for the flying public’s business, they collaborate on issues related to safety and security. “We all learn from incidents no matter where they happen and work diligently with the TSA and other regulatory agencies around the world to focus our efforts on the best interests of the public,” he notes.

Quiello emphasizes that United is intensely focused on the day-to-day safety of its employees, which requires a highly regimented approach, with the ultimate goal of providing customers safe travel around the clock.

“Safety is truly the responsibility of every employee at United—from our customer service representatives to our flight crews—and we expend considerable resources to provide the support, tools and training our people need to create the safest possible work environment,” he says.

United’s pilots, for example, receive world-class training, including recurrent sessions with state-of-theart flight simulators that re-create everything from adverse weather to complex emergencies. They also follow rigorous and standardized preflight safety procedures. When customers look out the plane’s window and see a pilot walking around the aircraft, for example, they’re observing a standard visual inspection process in which the captain or first officer makes a final evaluation of the fuselage, engines and landing gear.

As part of the safety team onboard the aircraft, United’s flight attendants vigilantly monitor the cabin to ensure compliance with FAA regulations as well as to identify any potential concerns.

“United’s maintenance teams are highly skilled veteran technicians who focus on our fleet twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week,” Quiello notes. “And we have teams of mechanics that take care of our ground equipment, loading bridges and the airport lobby and gate areas as well. Safety doesn’t begin when a person boards our aircraft; it begins when they enter the airport itself.”

The airline’s ground employees who load baggage and cargo, as well as skillfully guiding the planes into and out of the gates, are also well trained to carefully steer their equipment in the midst of the very busy and crowded environments that all major airports represent. “The handling of our aircraft is a highly orchestrated operation,” Quiello explains. “We want to ensure our employees remain injury free, and it’s also important not to damage the aircraft in any way, even if it’s just a slight bump. If the aircraft needs to be taken out of service for repair, it impacts operations and therefore customers.

“No pun intended, but great safety performance is no accident,” Quiello says, without cracking a smile. “We have in place an entire Safety Management System that ensures all safety regulations and policies are understood and followed,” he goes on. “At the core of the system is identifying and mitigating potential risks well before they become an issue.” Under Quiello’s leadership, rather than reacting to incidents, United takes a predictive approach using current data not only to improve safety performance, but the overall performance of the operations as well.

“The FAA monitors our safety compliance, of course, but we continuously self-audit and hold ourselves and our regional United Express and Star Alliance partner airlines accountable beyond IOSA standards,” he adds, referring to the International Air Transport Association’s Operational Safety Audit standards, the world’s most stringent.

“The job is never complete when it comes to the safety and security of our customers and employees,” Quiello adds. “There are only starting points. It is all about continuous improvement. As an airline, safety represents our most profound responsibility, and we take it very, very seriously.”

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