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Well Grounded

For John Watson, no change is too small—or big—to make when it comes to keeping United environmentally friendly

Author A. Averyl Re

JOHN WATSON EXPLAINS the switching of United vehicles to renewable diesel fuel like this: "We’re getting rid of the old fossils. Like me."

It’s a lighthearted quip about a subject he takes very seriously: making the ground-service equipment (GSE) that United uses at Houston’s George Bush Intercontinental Airport more efficient and environmentally friendly. As regional senior manager of ground equipment maintenance, Watson plays a major role in moving the company toward cleaner technology in ground operations. Forgoing fossil-based diesel in favor of renewable diesel for GSE is only the latest of his department’s efforts.

"Renewable diesel’s better for the environment because it really does run cleaner," says Watson, who anticipates making the switch to renewable diesel within the next six months.

Not only does United operate more flights at Houston Bush than at any other airport, but it also maintains the most ground-service equipment there: more than 4,500 pieces, ranging from golf carts to belt loaders to supertugs, overseen by the GSE department’s 99 co-workers. In addition, United’s Houston Bush operation boasts the highest percentage of electric GSE, at nearly 50 percent—marking yet another of Watson’s accomplishments in making United a greener company.

"We began electrification as a joint venture with the state of Texas," he says. "The state has been striving to become more environmentally friendly, and we wanted to join in that effort." Watson adds that the environment isn’t the only beneficiary. "There are no fumes. Cleaner air is good for our co-workers. The electric equipment is also quieter. We save on fuel. We save on oil. We save on hydraulic fluid. We have less maintenance."

Another reduction in the company’s environmental impact came about in 2000, when the airline began using supertugs to move airplanes. "Since we’ve had them, we have made over 350,000 aircraft moves," says Watson, explaining that the tugs are used for gate-to-gate movements, high-speed maintenance towing and aircraft push-back. "Because of the supertugs, not only do we save millions of dollars’ worth of airplane fuel, but also our planes aren’t putting those fumes into the environment."

Being environmentally friendly doesn’t stop with fuel and equipment, though. Watson’s department has also upgraded its 1961 building with more energy-efficient lighting and implemented recycling to manage discards such as antifreeze, filters and oils—small changes that have a huge impact over time.

"That’s just the way we do things," Watson says. "If you look at the evolution of the aircraft, they have become more efficient, cleaner burning and far more reliable. We’re trying to do the same with the GSE. We’re evolving."

Improving GSE and reducing the company’s environmental impact mark the latest steps in a career Watson began in 1984—a career that called him to Denver, Los Angeles, Newark and Houston and has used his talents on the ramp, in aircraft appearance and in technical operations. Before Houston, Watson served as the liaison in developing two hangars and the engine build-up shop at the Newark hub.

Through it all, Watson’s first consideration has been doing the right thing for the airline, its employees and the communities in which those employees live and work. "If you look across any industry out there, deciding to be more environmentally friendly can be expensive at the beginning," he says. "But we often save money over the long haul on reduced operating costs like fuel and, in the process, leave a better environment for our kids and grandkids."

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