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Operating System

United’s new chief operations officer’s focus is clear: clean, safe, reliable

Author Mike Guy

CLEAN, SAFE AND RELIABLE. These are the words that United lives by on a daily basis.

“That’s our mantra in operations,” says United’s chief operations officer Peter McDonald from his office at United headquarters in Chicago. “These are the things that the operations team and I focus on delivering every single day.”

Following the merger of United and Continental, McDonald oversees operations, and his team is minding everything from airport operations and maintenance, to safety and even watching, and planning, for the weather across the airline’s 10 hubs.

McDonald was born and raised on the northwest side of Chicago. He attended Notre Dame High School and Judson College and took his first job in the airline industry as a ramp serviceman at O’Hare International Airport. It was 1969, and he was 18 years old.

In the decades that followed, he climbed from supervisor to manager to senior vice president.

“I’ve worked at O’Hare, Denver, San Francisco and LAX—all for United,” he says. In July 2010, McDonald was named chief operations officer of the new United—a company that’s nearly double the size, based on departures, it was before its merger with Continental Airlines.

McDonald’s typical day begins early. “I get up at 3:15 a.m. and exercise,” he says. “Then I call into our operations center and get an update on the previous day’s performance. That means on-time arrivals and any other issues we might have had.”

He then reviews the operations forecast for the day. His team briefs him on weather reports from O’Hare and around the world, and makes any necessary adjustments to ensure the fleet stays ahead of the forecast. He also spends a considerable amount of time traveling, meeting with employees and working to ensure a seamless integration of the two airlines’ operations.

“I just returned from our Cleveland hub, where we built a new hangar and have a catering operation,” he says. “Then this evening I’ll head to London to spend time with our Continental operations people, and brief our team in Europe about integration. It’s a great opportunity for me to listen to my coworkers and discuss our plans with them about how we are creating the world’s leading airline.”

From McDonald’s perspective, the merger of United and Continental is going to create the best airline in the world, and it all starts with the people. “The key to my job is having highly effective individuals handling various aspects of the operations,” he says. “I have very seasoned executives running flight operations, inflight and system operations control, and safety. And we have the benefit of very strong executive teams from both United and Continental.

“Bringing together the best of both worlds goes well beyond enhancing the quality of the workforce,” McDonald says. “We will take the best practices from each airline to create a combination that is stronger in a broader array of areas,” he says.

For instance, United has more widebody aircraft than Continental. The combined airline can optimize the deployment of the aircraft so that each route is matched with precisely the right plane.

Also, by combining United and Continental’s maintenance networks, the airline will be leveraging those maintenance resources to work more efficiently on the aircraft, fixing items such as reading lights and coffee makers to ensure a better experience for our customers and for coworkers inflight.

The merger of United and Continental will not change the airlines’ focus on minimizing delays and cancellations—no mean feat considering that on October 1, 2010, when the merger was made official, the combined United/Continental was already leading the industry. “At the time the merger closed, both airlines were running a ninety- nine-plus percent completion schedule,” McDonald says. “That means that over the course of a day we canceled only one flight out of a hundred, which is a credit to my coworkers who do great work getting our customers to their destinations on time.”

McDonald has traveled to every combined hub and some of the smaller destinations in the new network, and he has found that the coworkers from both United and Continental are truly excited about the opportunities this merger brings.

“The fact is, we had a strong network before, but having a New York hub and Latin American presence with Continental, and combining it with United’s Asian presence—well, that’s a powerhouse,” he says. “Our people love that. They’re excited to take those strengths and deliver the highest quality service in the world. Being number one is a great motivator.”

More information about the United-Continental merger is available at united.com.

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