Whether upgrading facilities or dealing with the unexpected, Rick Hoefling thrives on solving the trickiest problems
Author A. Averyl Re
RICK HOEFLING HAS LOVED AIRPLANES all his life. While growing up in Elizabeth, N.J., he took a ride in a prop plane down the Hudson River that opened his eyes to the magic of flying; later, he studied engineering at Rutgers University, hoping to “do something with planes.” Today, as managing director of operations control at United Airlines’ Newark Liberty International Airport hub, Hoefling considers himself fortunate.
“I love my job. I can’t believe they pay me to do what I do,” he says. “I know my team feels the same. It takes a unique person to want to take each challenge and deal with it before it becomes a problem for
Hoefling’s boss describes him as a quarterback who ensures that United employees, federal agencies, vendors and partners from the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey come together in orchestrated harmony. That organization is vital for keeping things running smoothly at Newark, one of the world’s busiest airports, where more than 800 of United’s arrivals and departures come and go daily.
The oldest commercial airport serving New York/New Jersey, Newark can present a variety of challenges. “We have two main runways that are so close we can’t have simultaneous use a lot of the time,” Hoefling says. “When our weather deteriorates, our airport capacity drops significantly, which is why we’ve invested in sophisticated weather radar and the right people to interpret that data so we can keep our flights moving around the weather.”
Hoefling has had many years to figure out how to unravel such complexities. Stefan Mayden, managing director of ramp service, hired him in 1985 to work on the ramp. Hoefling has worked in various capacities at the airport ever since. “From an operations perspective, there’s probably nobody who knows more about Newark than Rick does,” Mayden says. “He’s very engaged and obviously dedicated. If you ask anyone who the guy to go to in Newark is, they’ll tell you Rick Hoefling.”
May 22, 2013, marks the 25th anniversary of the opening of Newark’s Terminal C. Hoefling has seen a lot of changes in those years. “The airline had assumed operations and employees from two other airlines, creating a disconnected, patchwork operation,” he says. “Today, the airline operates in all three terminals with operations tightly linked. Before, we were just there. Now, we are Newark.”
Beyond simply growing, United has invested in the airport itself, building facilities to overcome operational challenges. “We built a sophisticated, professional operations tower with cutting-edge technology, where we have about 40 people—operations, line maintenance control, cargo, etc.—all centrally located so we can discuss operations face to face. If everyone is separate, it’s much more difficult to address issues as quickly as we do,” Hoefling says, adding that the airline has invested in a system called Sensis Aerobahn to provide “the kind of real-time airport surveillance data we needed.”
But facilities are only one factor in his team’s success. “We educate employees to balance our business needs with the needs of our customers,” Hoefling says. “It’s not just about flying metal from point A to point B. In the end, the more we develop the capabilities of the hub to make the best decision, the better we are at running an outstanding operation.”
And as the hub grew, Hoefling grew along with it. “The most rewarding part of my job is tackling problems with the entire team,” he says. “When I started, I was the kind of person who would fix problems come hell or high water. But I learned I can’t fix it all by myself. We have a lot of people who are very wise. Fixing problems and delivering an exceptional product takes everyone’s talents and everyone’s input.”