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    • Hub Interviews: Kate Gebo on facilities investments
    • https://hub.united.com/PublishingImages/Hub%20Images%20120811/Author%20profile/hub-photo.pngUnited Hub team
      Posted Aug 26, 2013 at 6:00 AM
    • Kate Gebo, Vice President for Coporate Real Estate at UnitedKate Gebo, Vice President for Corporate Real Estate at United, is responsible for overseeing all planning, engineering and construction efforts for our U.S. and international airport and off-airport facilities. She also manages lease and landing fee obligations. Kate received her B.A. in finance from Chicago’s De Paul University and her M.A. from the Graduate School of Business at Loyola University of Chicago. Kate has been with United since 1998.

      United Hub: How and when did your interest in aviation begin?

      Kate Gebo:  I’ve been in aviation my entire career. My first job was as a consultant to airports, working primarily with City of Chicago and their two airports: Chicago O’Hare and Midway. I analyzed the financial feasibility of airport improvements such as terminals or runways. From there, I went to the other side of the business and was a consultant to the airlines, including both United and Continental, again in facility improvements.

      Hub: What inspired you to pursue your fields of study and does your training inform your work now?

      Kate:  I became very interested in business while in high school, so when I got to college I pursued studies that could lead to jobs in that field. I majored in finance at both DePaul and Loyola with a focus on real estate. In college I caught the travel bug, but it wasn’t until after college, when I joined the consulting world, that I discovered that airlines have people who work full-time on real estate projects. I thought, “I want to be one of them.” And now I am.

      Hub: What brought you to United?

      Kate:  In 1996, I was recruited by Continental to work in corporate real estate in Houston, where I led the airport leasing side of real estate. In 1998, United recruited me to join the company in Chicago, where I was responsible for the company’s biggest hub: Chicago O’Hare (ORD). I worked in this role for five years, and then I moved to procurement for five years. I’ve been back here in corporate real estate for five years now.

      Hub: Describe your current role. What are your job responsibilities?

      Kate:  There are two sides to my job. The business-deal side is about the space we lease and how much we pay for it. With each airport we serve, we negotiate leases for the space that we occupy and, in some locations, for the improvements that are being made at the airport.  In some of our hub locations we have more than 30 leases at a single location. We spend $2 billion in rent each year for airport space at more than 370 airports. Over the next two years our team will renegotiate more than 175 leases at various locations.

      Terminal B South at our Houston hubThe other side of my job is developing our facilities. The United construction team can be involved in anything from building the new Terminal B South at our Houston (IAH) hub to moving a ticket counter in Gunnison, Colorado, to building new maintenance hangars at Newark and Dulles. Overall, we have invested $300 to $400 million in construction each year.

      The two pieces come together because on the leasing side we negotiate with each airport how much responsibility we have versus what they are responsible for. Every airport relationship is different. For example, at San Francisco (SFO), we negotiated that the airport would handle all the building construction for the new concourse (boarding area E), and my team is responsible for the interior fit-out of the break rooms and office space. Conversely, at Terminal B South in Houston, my team is responsible for building the building, operating the concessions and maintaining the facility.

      Hub: Describe your team.

      Kate: I manage a team of 50 co-workers. The people on my team don’t swing a hammer but we negotiate the airport leases and manage the construction. We work with a number of outside firms that have general contractors, construction managers, architects and engineers.

      To give you a few examples, with Houston’s Terminal B South, our role is to take the functional requirements for the business and translate that into a facility that satisfies the needs of operations, safety, environmental, branding, finance and customer experience.  We then work with architects on options that fulfill the vision; the architects provide guidelines, and we implement one of them.

      We’re in construction on maintenance hangars at Dulles and Newark. We’ve been operating at Dulles since 1968 and this is our first hangar there. Our employees are very excited because they’ll work in a brand new, state-of-the-art facility that fits two narrow-body and one wide-body aircraft. Prior to this, aircraft that needed maintenance were flown to SFO or ORD. Now we’ll be able to do the maintenance on the fleet overnight.

      Hub: Talk about some of the other projects you’re involved with.

      Kate:  In Seattle, we just finished a move to a new concourse, and in Boston we’ll be moving to a brand new Concourse B in first quarter of next year. In Terminal 2 at ORD, we’ve heard from our customers about the need for more power to charge their phones and computers, so we are installing new seating and adding power in the seats – a project that should be complete by the end of September. We’re making improvements to give our customers the option to relax and plug in, do work if they want and watch a movie if they want.

      Hub: When creating new facilities, do you adopt environmental approaches to construction?

      Kate: We are always looking for ways to build green and sustainable. Houston Terminal B is LEED Silver, Willis is LEED Silver. With new construction or rehabbed spaces, we use recycled materials, energy-efficient lighting and heating wherever possible.

      Hub: How do you prioritize all these different projects?

      Kate: We look at where we’re going to have the greatest impact – for the customer, for the operation and for our operating expenses. We work a lot with the Customer Experience team and get feedback from them. In everything we do, it’s about how we can make the facilities better for our customers, work well for the operation and be cost effective at the same time. Also, unlike our competitors, we have eight domestic hubs and are spread out across the country.  As the saying goes, “You have to love all your children equally.”

      Hub: Do you think social media plays a role in how you communicate network operations information?

      Kate: Yes, I think it does. We look at comments from our customers on Twitter or Facebook and that helps us understand pain points in their travel experience. That’s how we ended up focusing on in-seat power in some of our gate areas. It’s expensive to do but we try to do it where it’s going to make an impact.

      Hub: What’s the best thing about your job?

      Kate: The favorite part of what I do is watching co-workers respond when we open a new facility. They get so excited and are so proud of what we’re doing as a company. It shows that we’re investing in our facilities and products.

      We have more than 400 break rooms throughout our system, and we’re in the first year of a phased plan to renovate them all – from the flooring to the coffee machines to the seating – to give our co-workers a place to rest and recharge during their shifts. We just completed a new break room at Dulles and our coworkers really appreciate that we have invested in a workspace that is just for them. The next new break room will be at O’Hare. 

      Hub: Is there a particular project that’s finishing up that you’re particularly proud of?

      Kate: We recently completed the last of our office move from 77 W. Wacker to Willis Tower. We have moved more than 4,000 co-workers into this building. Our moves are very efficient; they start on a Friday at noon and people are up and running by Monday morning.  This was really important for us because it gives our headquarters teams a chance to quickly meet with other stakeholders and encourages in-person collaboration.  As an airline we know the importance of face-to-face meetings and how they can really help with getting to a result quickly. This project is evidence of that.

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