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Creating opportunities inspired by the past

By Rachel Landgraf , February 27, 2020


The Tuskegee Airmen were the first African American pilots to fly in World War II, setting the precedent and paving the way for African Americans in the flight deck, like Brian Jackson, Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) Base Chief Pilot.

"I wouldn't be here without them," said Brian. "The Tuskegee Airmen set the framework to be what I am today. I want to be able to supply opportunities like that for generations to come."

Strolling through LAX, Brian reflected on how his framework began when he was a boy growing up in a blue-collar neighborhood in Lakeland, Florida. With an aunt who was a flight attendant and an uncle who is still an airline mechanic today, Brian's interest in aviation began at an early age.

But becoming a pilot? It seemed like a distant dream.

"As a minority, when you dream of becoming something like a pilot, you seek someone that looks like you," said Brian. "It's so you can say, 'I want to be like them.' But I didn't have that person to look to. Even though I had family in the aviation industry, they weren't pilots."

However, it was Brian's family, specifically his mother and another one of his uncles he credits as his mentor, that encouraged and helped him toward a dream that, at the time, seemed distant.

"My mother never loved flying," said Brian. "But she told me, 'Go for your dreams and always be the best you can be.' And then my uncle helped put everything in front of me. He helped put me in flight school and with my resumes to get hired at my first regional carrier. He was the person that helped me clear the path."

Brian's path brought him to United 15 years ago. He started at Newark Liberty International Airport, then moved to Antonio B. Won Pat International Airport, where for over six years, he flew all around the Pacific. He then went on to George Bush Intercontinental Airport where he served as an instructor before moving to Chicago's O'Hare International Airport. And as of the beginning of February, Brian is now the base chief pilot at LAX. Throughout his career, Brian has also been an active member and advocate for the Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals (OBAP), the Tuskegee NEXT programs and more.

"A lot of kids will come up and say, 'Thank you' or 'What did it take?'" said Brian. "But really, we should be thanking them. For putting forth the effort and the time to studying to attain this career. For me, it's a continued legacy and it all started with the Tuskegee Airmen."

Ring reunion: United reps deliver Valentine's Day surprise

By Ryan Hood

Megan Hansen grabbed the hand bag under her seat, looking to put away her book. Instead, she found a gut-wrenching problem. Her engagement ring wasn't on her finger. Barely two months after her now-fiancé, Philip Walker, had placed it there, it was gone.

"I was an absolute wreck," Hansen says. "My parents, sister and her boyfriend were traveling with us and their support helped a lot, but I was pessimistic. It's a really nice diamond ring, so I thought there's no way someone would turn it in."

Making matters worse, after searching the United plane the group flew to John Wayne Airport to no avail, Walker admitted he hadn't insured the ring. Thursday was not exactly a magical start to a long weekend with family at Disneyland.

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Cheryl Searle can illuminate an entire terminal with her infectious positivity and never-ending desire to put smiles on customers' faces. A senior supervisor for United Airlines at its Denver International airport, Searle was particularly chipper when she showed up to work, since she was planning to celebrate Valentine's Day by surprising customers with goody bags full of sweets.

A couple hours into the work day, a coworker told her about an engagement ring that'd been recovered near Gate 33. A missing item claim had been filed, a match found, and customer confirmed. The customer would be flying back to Denver on Sunday.

'Happy ending, but we can make it an even happier ending,' Searle thought to herself.

After getting the green light from her boss, Searle and customer service representative Nancy Swingle boarded the next United flight to Orange County, California to make a surprise Valentine's Day delivery.

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Hansen woke up distraught Friday morning. She hadn't heard from anyone about the ring and she was convinced she'd never see it again. Her finger felt empty, so she googled potential replacements she could buy herself. Hansen's mother, sensing her daughter's heartbreak, bought a ring from the Disney store so that Megan could have something on her finger again.

That placeholder helped, and the family headed into Disneyland. While at the Star Wars: Galaxy's Edge area, Hansen got an incredibly uplifting call: her ring had been recovered at the Denver airport, and United would hold on to it for her to pick up on Sunday.

"United made my Valentine's Day," a relieved Hansen exclaimed. Shortly after, her fiancé's phone rang. Cheryl Searle was on the other end.

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Everyone knew, except for Hansen. Even Mickey and Minnie Mouse. Searle and Swingle, with the help of Disneyland, Hansen's fiancé and her father, had devised a ring reunion plan for Friday night's fireworks show. Hansen and family arrived for the show and went directly to a VIP viewing area.

"Weird, but my Mom must have talked our way into here, since that's something she'd do," Hansen recalled thinking. A few minutes later, Searle and Swingle approached Hansen, in the shadow of Sleeping Beauty Castle. "I thought they were Disney employees," Hansen said. "I'm thinking to myself, 'Oh no, what did I lose now? Did I leave my wallet somewhere?'" Then Searle revealed a small box in her right hand.

"We know you are already in the happiest place on earth," Searle told her, "but we think we are about to make you just a little bit happier."

United reps pictured returning engagement ring to customers, Megan and Phillip. Cheryl and Nancy pictured with Megan and Phillip at Disneyland

Searle handed the ring to Walker, who got down on one knee and re-proposed. Those nearby cheered, thinking they'd just witnessed the couple get engaged. Disney arranged for Mickey and Minnie to pay the family a visit, too.

"I have so much gratitude for Cheryl, Nancy and everyone else at United who was involved with this truly surreal experience," Hansen said. "They took what was this highly stressful, awful moment in my life and turned it into a great experience and made me feel like I truly mattered. And that's special."

For Searle, Swingle and their United colleagues in Denver, it was mission accomplished.

"Customer Service is all about doing the right thing and taking care of our customers like we would want someone to take care of our own family," Searle said. "I felt utter pride knowing that her ring was home with her, where it belonged, especially on Valentine's Day.

"Seeing the reunion unfold, from the planning phases to the deployment, it gave all of us reason to believe in happy, fairytale endings. Dreams do come true."

Steps toward the sky

By Rachel Landgraf

Carole Cary-Hopson, Newark Liberty International Airport Boeing 737 First Officer, remembers how it felt piloting her first United flight.

"Shivers" she recalled. "I felt as if this is what dreams are made of. Every single time I come to work, I feel that way."

"That way" was 14 years in the making for Carole. "What dreams are made of" dates back to her childhood in Pennsylvania and frequently visiting her grandma's home in south Jersey that was right by the Philadelphia airport.

Pictured: Carole Cary-Hopson

"We would go and lie in the grass by the airport and note the colors of the planes coming in and leaving, how many would come through at a time; we made graphs," said Carole. "I was fascinated by it."

As Carole grew up, she held on to that fascination, but an undergrad and master's degree later, she found herself successfully climbing her way up the corporate ladder, from the NFL to Footlocker. As her duties and roles continued to evolve and grow, Carole observed that she was always on an airplane. In fact, it was on a work trip where that observation and her life-long fascination came full circle.

"I was on a KLM flight and the pilot noticed me looking around and observing everything," she said. "So, he offered me the jumpseat and proceeded to teach me everything across the North Atlantic trip. It was then and there I realized, 'I can do this.' It all came together in my head."

Not long after that flight, Carole went on a date with a man who she now proudly calls her husband.

"I told him on that date, 'I have something to tell you and if you laugh at me about it, I'll never see you again,'" said Carole. Carole proceeded to tell him about her dream of becoming a pilot. A few weeks after that date, he handed her gift certificates to attend a flight school right outside of Manhattan.

From there, Carole moved roles in her corporate career once more, taking a job with L'Oreal where she socked away her paychecks to save up for flight school. In the meantime, she began to network in the aviation world, attending events through Women in Aviation and the Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals (OBAP). It was there she met her mentors, one being American Airlines Captain Jenny Beatty who handed her a mug of Bessie Coleman, the first woman of African-American and Native-American descent to hold a pilot's license.

"I stood on that crowded convention floor with Jenny and Bessie at that time and just bawled," said Carole. "I kept asking myself how I could be an Ivy League graduate and had never heard of her. At that moment, I wanted to do something with her story."

Thus, along with training, becoming a pilot and raising a family, Carole began writing a historical fiction book on Bessie, a woman who had to go to France to learn how to fly because no one would teach her in the U.S. Today, the book is near completion and once finished, 25% of the proceeds will go toward the Lt. Colonel Luke Weathers Flight Academy, an organization within OBAP that aims to grow and diversify the future pilot pipeline.

Carole pictured with a group of young women

"I hope Bessie is smiling down and has forgiven me for taking so long on writing this book," said Carole. "She continues to provide me with guidance and being an example of determination. I know she would tell me to keep going and to not even dare to stop."

Well, as if Bessie already doesn't know, stopping doesn't seem to be in Carole's vocabulary.

"When you have a goal, there are a series of definitive steps," said Carole. "Each one is important and sometimes, they take many years to reach. But each one of those goals I had in the past were steps that got me to flying."

And Carole's next step?

"Continue to fly and finish Bessie's book," said Carole. "And once the book is finished, the goal is a movie and then sending 100 black women to flight school. With the numbers being only 1-2% African-American's flying, we need to fix that, and I intend to!"

Finding our heart in Peru

By Kelsey + Courtney Montague , February 14, 2020

Sisters and United MileagePlus® Premier® 1k members, Kelsey and Courtney Montague, are constantly traveling to create street art pieces for communities around the world. This year they teamed up with us to travel to Peru to explore the beautiful country, and to create a custom mural for a very special group of young women participating in the Peruvian Hearts program. Peruvian Hearts, now part of our Miles on a Mission program, works to support female leaders with access to education, counseling and peer support

Finding tranquility at Machu Picchu

As we hiked up the ancient steps of Machu Picchu, we were surrounded by Incan merchants, servants and townsfolk climbing the stairs to start their day. As foreigners not used to hiking at 7,9000 feet, the locals sprinted by us as we struggled up the steep steps, with the lush rainforest behind us and ancient city just beyond. But even with burning legs and straining lungs, it's likely anyone's breath would be taken away (as ours was) once they reached the clearing above this sprawling city in the clouds. All thoughts of the slightly tortuous route we took to this dazzling ancient city were forgotten the second we laid eyes on this UNESCO World Heritage site.

Along with my sister Kelsey, our Dad and our friend Clay felt the power and mystery when we all arrived at the vantage point over the city of Machu Picchu. The day before we had traveled all day from Denver flying in United's stunning United Polaris®. We slept fully flat on two excellent flights, curled up on down pillows and wrapped in Saks Fifth Avenue comforters. We slept soundly after feasting on steak and chocolate sundaes and spent a layover chatting with bartender, Steven, as he made us cosmos at the United Polaris lounge in Houston. It was wonderful, but the best part? Arriving in Peru so rested and relaxed we were able to completely savor this moment at Machu Picchu. A moment only made sweeter when our Dad turned to us and thanked us for taking him on the trip of a lifetime and giving him the opportunity to see a place he never thought he'd get to visit.

We explore the ruins with the wide eyes of children, enjoying every view and savoring every piece of information from our guide. Llamas 'own' the ruins and gently nudge tourists aside as they scamper between buildings to their favorite pasture. The terraces on the outskirts of the town were used to prevent soil erosion and to farm maize and beans. Condors soar above our heads, their keen eyes hunting for chinchillas tucked into the terrace rock walls.

Incan community members that lived or worked in Machu Picchu must have felt the same way we felt the first time they came across this thriving metropolis, situated on top of a mountain. Incan urban planners neatly organized centers for astrological studies, religious ceremonies, sports, commerce and farming. The buildings were built from granite and limestone, likely from a quarry located on the same mountaintop. Some buildings were so finely constructed scientists still don't quite know how the Incans did it.

At the end of the tour we come to the sacred rock — a perfect, flat replica of the Yanantin mountain behind it. Some mystical members of society believe that touching the rock transmits tremendous power. I won't lie that I quietly let my fingers graze the stone as a I walked by. Did I feel a sudden power rush? No. But did I leave Machu Picchu filled with a sense of wonder and a reaffirmed belief that anything is possible? Yes.

Partnering with Peruvian Hearts

The next morning, we awoke ready to tackle the most meaningful part of our trip to Peru — working with Peruvian Hearts.

Peruvian Hearts works to support women by giving them access to education, counseling and peer support. They are currently working with 32 talented, bright young women who they have hand-picked from secondary institutions across Cusco. They focus on supporting brilliant engineers, psychologists, teachers, scientists and doctors. These are the future female leaders that will change their communities, their country and the world for the better.

When we arrive to meet these scholars, they cheer, and each young woman gives Kelsey and me a hug. Overwhelmed, we both begin to cry. We are so grateful for our job as a traveling street art team, but we are on the road so much we are often very lonely. We can't remember the last time we received so many hugs or saw so many bright smiles.

When we arrive to the Peruvian Hearts headquarters a number of the young women tell us how they found Peruvian Hearts. Aldi, a brilliant engineer in training, was asked to join this special organization because she was first in her class in secondary school. She grew up in tough financial circumstances — her mother is ill and unable to work, and her father works in construction. As the only person in her family who has attended university, she is the primary hope of her family. Tears stream down her face as she describes how tough it has been for her family to survive. So many of these young women tell similar stories and carry the weight of their entire family's future squarely and proudly on their shoulders.

These stories reaffirm the reason Kelsey and I decided to join forces with United — we hope to make that weight on their shoulders a little lighter. As we worked on the mock-up for the mural to commemorate Peruvian Hearts, United decided to help in another way by including Peruvian Hearts in their new Miles on a Mission program. A first of its kind program, United MileagePlus members can now donate their miles to nonprofits they care about. Miles that will help young women like Aldi attend conferences in the United States or study abroad in Mexico.

Other women will be able to travel more freely between their studies in Lima and their families in Cusco. The young scholars were so excited to now be part of the United family and to have access to the connections a major airline can bring.

After an ideation period Kelsey decided to create a large-scale heart flock mural with 32 hearts on one side to represent the young women in the program and 32 hearts on the other side to represent those to come. Over two days we painted the piece and filled it with items that represent Peru (a llama, a condor, Peru's national flower and butterflies), Peruvian Hearts (pencils, books, and a shooting star) and a United airplane. As we worked on the piece the ladies sang, danced and told us their dreams. Dreams to travel, learn new languages, start meaningful careers and change their communities for the better.

When we finished the piece — two massive streams of hearts that appear to be coming from the person standing in the middle of the mural — the girls came to thank us. With cheers, hugs and kisses they explained how proud they were that this mural was for them and how it would continue to lift them up as they work hard to improve their circumstances.

At the end of this project Kelsey and I felt so blessed to be connected to such a wonderful group of women. At that moment we realized that is what art and travel should be about. Art and travel should connect us to each other as humans and to something deeper within ourselves — a desire to lift each other up.

Visit United's Miles on a Mission program to support Peruvian Hearts .

Taking flight together, celebrating Black History Month

By Oscar Munoz, CEO, United Airlines

If you walk into the famed Museum of Science and Industry on Chicago's South Side, you'll pass scores of artifacts and tributes to our progress as human beings, our boundless ingenuity and endless curiosity, and — above all — our capacity to come together in pursuit of a better future.

As you make your way through the building, if you cast your eyes upwards, you'll see, suspended as if in mid-flight, the centerpiece of the whole exhibit: a beautiful United Airlines Boeing 727. Emblazoned on the fuselage you'll see the aircraft is named after William (Bill) Norwood, the first African-American pilot for United Airlines and a trailblazing pioneer for not only our airline, but the aviation industry and our country, as well.

The arc of his extraordinary career traces the history of United Airlines, and the United States. His story tells us something vitally important about where we come from and where we ought to be going.

In his wonderful, inspiring memoir, "Cleared for Takeoff: A Pilot's Story of Challenges and Triumphs," Bill retells the story of his arrival at United's Flight Training Center in Denver on May 31, 1965.

On that first day, Bill experienced the same frustrating attitudes he had faced when he took the field as the first African American quarterback of his university (he was also one of only two black college quarterbacks in the nation at the time), and also the first time he piloted the mighty B-52s for the U.S. Air Force.

"When a classmate asked me, in a condescending manner, which aircraft I had flown [previously], I proceeded to tell him I had flown the B-52 and had 1,400 hours in the jumbo jet," Bill wrote. "I quickly added that the DC-6 would fit under one wing of the B-52. The word soon spread my qualifications were far superior to any of those of my classmates."

This story captures the experience that I think many people can relate to, myself included. And it is something that too many of our friends and family deal with to this day.

Bill summed it up this way: "Whether it was segregation or discrimination, not only against people of color but also women, we were taught you have to work twice as hard to get half as far."


Bill worked more than twice as hard, and he helped so many others in the United family go very far, indeed.

Across the system this February, we will continue to help tell these inspiring stories as we recognize Black History Month. We are doing more than talking, however; we are making change happen and championing the values of diversity, inclusion and respect that have made United an industry-leader for equality of opportunity and advancement.

For example, our consistent efforts that promote our minority-owned business partners earned us Top 50 designation from DiversityInc, celebrating our supplier diversity program.

Also, our exciting new pilot hiring program, Aviate, will help continue Bill Norwood's legacy across United's flight decks.

I think the greatest tribute we can offer to trailblazers like Bill, and everyone who shared his experience of trial and triumph, is to build an airline where every United family member and customer we serve can go as far as their dreams and talent lead them.

Ultimately, that is what that aircraft inscribed with his name is really all about. When we come together as people, with a common pursuit of a better future, that's when we truly take flight.

Humbly,

Oscar

A happy, Hollywood ending

By Ryan Hood , February 03, 2020

This is the story of Jason and Shantel. You see, Jason and Shantel love each other very much. They also love traveling and they love the classic Adam Sandler film, The Wedding Singer.

It all began when Jason reached out to United's social media team, hoping for assistance with his upcoming plan to propose. Some phone calls and one borrowed guitar later, the stage was set for Jason. Put all that together, mix in some helpful United employees and, voila, you have a truly memorable marriage proposal. Congratulations to this fun-loving and happy couple, and here's to many more years of making beautiful music together.

A big thank you to Chicago-based flight attendants Donna W., Marie M., Karen J. and Mark K. for making this proposal come to life.