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Holding the Strings

For Purser Jim Welk, being in control means creating a great customer experience

Author A. AVERYL RE

SOMETIMES ONE PERSON can mean the difference between rough travel and smooth sailing. For United customers on international flights, pursers such as Jim Welk work to provide the best possible travel experience. The position of purser — basically a flight attendant with special training — goes back to Pan Am, which sold its Pacific Division to United in 1985.

“Pursers came from a very old-school thought of having one person in charge who is going to make sure that things are handled well. The purser carried the purse and paid for things like fuel,” Welk explains. “I have safety and work responsibilities, but being a purser takes it up another level, in that I make sure everything is done to the standard that United has set.”

Welk first fell in love with travel during a four-week trip with a leadership group in high school. While pursuing his bachelor’s degree in psychology at Baldwin-Wallace College, he was hired by United and began training in May 1978. From there, he never looked back in a career that, he says, has given him lots of opportunities to learn more about the things he loves.

“When you get the travel bug, you become truly interested in people and what motivates them,” he says. “In this job, there are always new people to meet and something new down the road. Flying is a continuing experience of learning — for instance, understanding which facial expressions and hand gestures are considered polite when speaking to someone from Japan.”

But the learning, Welk says, isn’t just about acquiring knowledge. For him, it’s also providing a way to “Fly the Friendly Skies of United,” the company’s slogan when he joined the airline and one that stays in his mind to this day. Learning about people, their customs and their expectations allows Welk to help customers feel welcome on United’s planes and ensure that their flying experience goes as smoothly as possible.

The job isn’t without its challenges, though. “I want everything to be its best and to appear seamless from one transition to another, but we often have time challenges in getting all the crews on the same page,” he says. “There is a lot to do to make sure that, when it all comes together and it’s time to present United Airlines to that first customer onboard, everything is ready to go.”

Another challenge that Welk and his crew face isn’t related to planes or product — it’s within themselves, brought on by taking off in one time zone and landing in another 14 hours later, and still having a job to do. That’s something Welk knows a bit about: He earned a master’s degree in regulatory biology from Cleveland State University with a thesis on circadian rhythms and the effect of time changes on workers such as auto-plant shift employees, police officers and, yes, flight attendants.

As for the most rewarding part of his job, Welk says it’s probably “learning to be in the moment, whether it’s meeting colleagues or customers. I do things most people never get to do, such as walking outside a temple in Japan, with all the cherry blossoms in bloom.”

Moreover, traveling around the world helped shape the person he has become. “I grew up reading about all these people and places and customs, and then I got to experience them,” he says. “If I didn’t have this job, I don’t think I would have developed as I did in understanding people and learning to be empathetic to anyone and everyone.”

As much as he loves his work, though, Welk says his leisure time means not getting on airplanes. “I vacation vicariously in my job, so during my time off I like to be at home with family and friends.”

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