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True Mentor

After 40 years at United, Joanne Calabrese, vice president of Airport Operations–Hubs, is one of many improving the airline's performance the best way she knows how: by example

Author Rod O’Connor Photography United Airlines Creative Services

Image – United Airlines Creative Services

IT TAKES A TEAM EFFORT to improve an airline’s performance. And United’s people from across many departments—from flight crews and ramp workers to maintenance personnel and gate agents—can all share credit for United’s ongoing success in the area of on-time arrivals.

According to Joanne Calabrese, vice president of Airport Operations– Hubs, this success is a testament to several programs the company has put in place over the past few years to encourage each person to bear in mind how his or her own job relates to those of coworkers and contributes to the operation of the airline as a whole.

“We’re at our best when we all support each other and work together as a team that is focused on the best interests of our customers as well as one another,” she says.

Calabrese, born and raised in Manhattan and currently residing in Chicago’s northwest suburbs, knows a thing or two about the day-to-day jobs of those she works with. Her career with United began in 1969 as a reservations clerk, and over 40-plus years she’s served in departments ranging from customer service to baggage and onboard services. And now, as the executive responsible for United’s hubs in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Denver and Washington Dulles, as well as 10 surrounding airports, Calabrese puts that on-the-ground experience to good use as she searches for ways departments can improve efficiency and performance.

Along with some of her peers, she’s helping develop ways United’s various operating groups can work toward a common goal: successful departures.

“What we continually ask ourselves is, what do we have to do to collectively get this flight out safely and on time?” she explains. “It’s really about setting up teams so we can get to the root cause of any issues and work together to improve the customer’s experience,” she says.

A big part of the effort has been focused on common work practices. At United’s hub at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), everyone—from managers and supervisors to front-line folks— charted out the 1,500 or so different activities involved in a typical departure, everything from loading bags, mail and freight to boarding customers to maintenance checks. After mapping out a more efficient way for individual departments to collaborate, the team also developed an issue resolution protocol to give every person a way to talk through any challenges related to their jobs.

“Standard work has always guided our departures,” notes Calabrese. “What is new is focusing on how one’s individual work impacts other groups involved in getting our planes and customers out safely and on time.”

While such improvements have certainly contributed to United’s performance gains, fundamental changes at its hubs have also had an enormous impact. Beginning last year, a new system was put in place that gives both “upstairs and downstairs” responsibilities to all managers.

That means the concourse manager is charged not only with planeside ramp activities, but also customer service at the gate; and the terminal manager oversees customer service in the check-in area and baggage service, including the ramp bag room.

“It’s a whole new way of doing business for us,” Calabrese says. “Looking at our performance to date, I think this new approach is the best thing we’ve ever done.”

Additional training was provided to get everyone up to speed on their new roles—to ensure a smooth departure, yes, but also to keep people safe.

In the airline industry, safety is always of utmost concern. But all of the activity that goes on around an aircraft during a standard takeoff and landing—for example, the lifting, pushing and rolling of heavy items— can also present occasions for strains and sprains.

Each ramp worker loads an average of 180 bags, totaling almost 5,500 pounds, every single day. To help minimize potential injuries, United launched the MoveSMART program. These training sessions focus on body mechanics principles—some derived from martial arts—to find safer, more efficient ways to lift bags or push carts.

“Working safely is always at the top of everyone’s mind,” says Calabrese. “Whether our people are guiding an airplane or loading a bag, we have to remember this each and every day.”

In addition to providing the proper training, United also believes in the importance of showing appreciation for a job well done. At no time is this more important than the summer traveling season in the northern hemisphere. Just as the company does during all high-volume periods, Calabrese and other company leaders will meet with people on the concourses to thank them and sometimes to provide snacks or beverages during long, hot, busy days.

For senior executives like Calabrese, meeting with those she works with also offers opportunities for mentorship. During her ongoing visits to United hubs and their surrounding metro airports, she sits down with each respective general manager and division head to track performance across multiple criteria. But she’s always on the lookout for ways to foster leadership among all employees.

It’s a role Calabrese relishes, and is uniquely qualified to perform. Because after 40 years experience working her way up the corporate ladder—at a time when female executives were not very common in many industries—she understands how to empower people to do their best work.

“I started out here as a clerk,” Calabrese says. “So when I go into the field, I get it. I’ve been there, done that, got all the T-shirts,” she adds with a laugh. “I understand what our people go through. And I tell this to folks throughout the organization: ‘You can be anything you want to be. If you want a leadership role, it’s open to you.’

“That experience has helped me tremendously in relating to our teams and understanding what we’re all trying to accomplish. When we have a successful flight, I know what it takes to make that happen.”

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