Cindy Szadokierski, vice president of Airport Operations Planning and United Express, helps United connect the world
Author Aaron Gell Photography United Airlines Creative Services
Image – United Airlines Creative Services
FOR THE MAJORITY of United fliers, the addition of one more destination—be it a small rural community like Minot, North Dakota (pop. 35,000), or an international city like Accra, Ghana—to the airline’s network of destinations might not seem like such a big deal. But for local residents and business leaders, it can be a game-changer, not merely opening new possibilities for travel but providing a critical economic lifeline.
“You can see what it represents to them to have this connection to the world,” says Cindy Szadokierski, vice president of airport operations planning and United Express, who with her team is instrumental in making sure such new routes are up to United’s high standards and are seamlessly integrated into the network. “Often the whole community comes out in support of our first arrival. You’ll see the mayor there, the Chamber of Commerce, school groups. It becomes a real community celebration.”
And no wonder, since fliers from any point on United’s hub-and-spoke network enjoy efficient connections to everywhere else the airline flies, opening up new horizons, relationships and possibilities. “When I started at United in 1985,” Szadokierski recalls, “we only flew to a handful of international destinations. Today, to see how we bring people from small towns and medium-sized communities to most anywhere in the world through United, United Express and our Star Alliance partners is just amazing to me.
Over the course of her 25 years at United, Szadokierski, 51, has held a number of positions—from reservations and sales to airport operations—but it’s her current role that has given her the most vivid look at the ways in which becoming part of United’s vast hub-and-spoke network can benefit a community. “It allows us to connect small cities with hubs like Chicago or Washington, D.C., and then link them to the world,” she explains. “It has a tremendous impact on the lifeblood of these smaller communities, not only offering them new opportunities for both business and leisure travel but bringing commerce and economic value to them as well.”
The hub-and-spoke system is critical to United as well. “The spokes feed into the network,” Szadokierski explains. “They help to fill those planes going on to Europe, Asia—everywhere United flies. So it’s reciprocal. A new route is an economic engine for a community, providing local jobs among other benefits, but at the same time, these communities help make United a stronger airline, which is great for everyone.” Szadokierski works closely with the planning team, who determines the type of aircraft and the frequency of service that an airport needs and can accommodate. The network, as it is designed, provides for flexibility and enables service to be determined based on market demand.
What makes such a network possible, Szadokierski notes, is the airline’s array of partnerships with a number of smaller carriers, through United Express. And one of Szadokierski’s most critical responsibilities is to ensure that United and its flying and ground handling partners are able to meet United’s strict standards and work in lock-step with the mainline carrier to provide every customer the level of safety and service that has made United one of the world’s top airlines. “We contract with regional airlines to provide airplanes, trained pilots and flight attendants, as well as ground crew, to United Express,” she explains. “But the relationship is deeper than that—we consider them to be true partners. We’ve made tremendous improvements in United Express’ operational performance over the last several years, and that’s a testament to the incredible work not only of our flying partners and ground-handling providers but United employees, as well as the performance-management team, which is constantly working to make sure that all partners adhere to the strictest standards.”
Before a partner can even be considered, Szadokierski adds, being certified by the FAA is just the beginning. “They also have to meet Department of Transportation quality and safety requirements, pass regular audits by the International Air Transport Association and undergo a rigorous United quality and safety evaluation, among many other stringent requirements. We monitor them on an ongoing basis and survey our customers on how well our partners are improving the customer experience.”
The goal, she says, is to provide a truly seamless experience for United’s customers. “The partners’ aircraft are painted in United’s livery,” she points out. “They represent United. And from a customer-experience perspective, they are United.”
The proposed merger with Continental Airlines will further strengthen this network. “We’re committed to continuing to operate in all of the small and medium-sized communities that both of our airlines serve,” Szadokierski says. “Through the combined airline and our Express and Star Alliance partners, we’ll then be able to connect all of the residents of these communities to our eight mainline domestic hubs, enabling them to travel to 350 destinations in 59 countries around the world. It’s truly amazing.”
Szadokierski grew up in a small town herself, Strasburg, Virginia, so she knows how transformative such an opening to the world can be. She retains fond memories of her first trip to Europe, as a teenager. “My mother took out a loan to help pay for it,” she recalls. “We went to fifteen countries in twelve days. When we returned the first thing I said was, ‘When can I go back?’” The answer came when Szadokierski began her first career as a high school French teacher and brought student groups to Europe. “It was so great for them to see that there’s more to the world than the place where they grew up,” she says.
At the time, such trips began and ended with an 80-mile drive to Dulles. Now, with more regional flying to smaller cities, the possibilities are endless for a quick hop to one of United’s hubs on United Express and then off to see the world.