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Trading Spaces

For United's Olga Hovland, customer comfort is personal

Author Pete Rapalus

THE COMPLETION OF A long-term project generally creates excitement. But for Olga Hovland, an aircraft maintenance technician and inspector at United’s San Francisco Maintenance Center, the excitement of bringing a high-profile three-year project to a close is also tinged with a bit of nostalgia.

This spring, the last of United’s international three-class widebody aircraft will enter a hangar at the San Francisco facility to undergo extensive cabin reconfiguration, with the Boeing 777s getting all-new flat-bed seats in United Global First and United BusinessFirst, personal on-demand entertainment systems, new seats and video monitors in United Economy and in-seat power. These modern aircraft interiors—whose premium-cabin elements were first featured on the airline’s Boeing 767 and 747 aircraft—have been a source of pride for United employees since their debut in the second half of the last decade. But the B777 renovations in San Francisco are particularly close to the hearts of United’s Technical Operations employees.

“It’s a bittersweet feeling,” says Hovland, who, before the current B777 project, helped transform the interiors of dozens of Airbus A320s from an all-economy configuration into leather-clad standouts. “In many ways this has been the highlight of my career with United. I’m a little sad that this particular project is coming to an end. But I’m also proud of our accomplishments and excited about our future opportunities.

“We all know how important these new cabins are to the success of our airline, and when the customers rate United, they are rating us: the technicians and others who did the work.”

Technicians completed the first such B777 cabin conversion in early 2010. Work that required more than two months back then can now be done in half the time or less—which is the kind of improvement that depends on direct input from employees like Hovland.

“Everybody involved with this project has contributed, but what makes Olga special is how she combined the roles of planner and executor,” says Jay Patel, operating manager for the cabin retrofit project since the beginning. “There is nothing about this project that she cannot do.”

“She was a big part of how we improved our performance, working smarter, faster and better, plane by plane,” adds Hovland’s supervisor, Myron Yorks.

Hovland, a native of San Francisco, once dreamed of becoming a flight attendant. But after her brother Joaquin got a job at the United maintenance center, he convinced her to apply there because of the variety of work and career opportunities. “By then, I was interested in doing something that was very hands-on,” Hovland says. “And I was always interested in proving to my brothers that I could do anything they could do.”

Hovland joined United in 1990 as a clerk and held a number of positions over the years—from production data controller to maintenance planning analyst—while working towards her mechanic’s license. (A third sibling, Guadalupe, also works at the center now.)

And while the B777 reconfiguration will soon come to an end, Hovland says, “the great thing about United is that there will always be interesting projects like this.” On the best projects, Hovland adds, she learns to appreciate the process as well as the product.

“This is about much more than just us technicians,” Hovland says. “There were so many others—storekeepers, supervisors, planners, engineers, our cleaning crews—I could go on and on. What I get to tell my friends and family is that I am part of the team that created this world-class premium product for our customers.”

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