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Calm and Collected

For Network Operations Control Manager Debbie Tempesta, keeping things up in the air without losing focus is all in a day's work

Author A. AVERYL RE

Debbie Tempesta admits she’s a bit of an anomaly. “In this day and age, it’s hard to find people who love what they do, but I do,” she says. “It’s fun to come to work every day.” What makes her words astonishing, though, is that she holds what could be easily described as one of the more challenging jobs at United Airlines.

Tempesta works on a team of 33 network operations control managers in the nerve center of United Airlines: the Network Operations Center, or NOC. United recently combined operations centers from suburban Chicago and Houston into a new state-of-the-art facility in Chicago’s Willis Tower. Around the clock, 365 days a year, NOC managers work in teams of seven to oversee 6,000 mainline and regional flights a day.

“It’s like the NASA control center you see in the movies,” Tempesta explains. “We’re the point people for the entire globe, whether it’s routine operations or large-scale events, such as political unrest or weather situations, that affect our flights. We work collaboratively with dispatchers, airplane routers, crew schedulers, maintenance control—all these people who handle various aspects of flight.”

Just handling routine operations is a day-to-day challenge, she says. “What we do is like a giant three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle. I work with creative, knowledgeable people who have the capacity to have a lot of moving pieces in their head at one time while multitasking and handling various issues.” And then she faces the non-routine. “Sometimes you have to be creative when you’re talking about a delayed airplane with 350 people on it. You can’t give up. You have to find a solution.”

Tempesta came up through the ranks after joining the company 15 years ago— working in reservations, on the ramp and in customer service. “I was a ramp supervisor in Minneapolis,” she recalls. “We were de-icing planes on the ramp one morning, and I thought, ‘What did I get myself into?’ But every job you take along the way helps you build that foundation for what you’re meant to do.”

Airline operations centers tend to be male-dominated, but that did not daunt Tempesta when pursuing her position five years ago. “If you’re the right person for the job, then you’re the right person for the job,” she says. “You go after what you want, and you do it with integrity, honesty and hard work. If you work hard enough and you prove yourself, you earn others’ respect.”

And she has earned that respect as one of five women on the team. Her coworkers say they like working with her because she stays calm even when things get hectic, but to Tempesta, it’s all part of being one of those employees who have a huge impact on customer experience, whether the customers see them or not. “Our objective is for our customers to have a clean, safe, reliable journey, and, in the end, we have an industry-leading company.”

Tempesta comes from an airline family—her father, mother and stepfather all worked in the industry. On family trips, her mother and stepfather used to quiz her and her nine siblings on airport city codes to keep them occupied. And customer service is practically in her genes. “My mom taught me you never meet a stranger. When I travel, I want to talk to people. I get a sense of what people want, what people need, what type of travel experience they’re looking for. I want to discover what I can do differently in my day-to-day work to benefit United long-term, to help us give our customers what they want and to show them we appreciate that they chose us to take them there.

“I’m passionate about making a difference. There are so many positive things I see happening, and yet sometimes people tend to focus on the negative instead— all that creates is negative energy. It’s not worth it. We have more important things to do.”

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