Fantasy Flights: A magical winter wonderland
For decades, Fantasy Flights have been an annual holiday tradition in several of United's markets. For one day each December, our employees transform airport gate areas into a winter wonderland to give children afflicted by illness, poverty and special needs the experience of a lifetime.
Fantasy Flights transport kids to an entirely new world within our stations, complete with singing and dancing, toys, crafts and Santa Claus himself. The children and their families have the opportunity to board an actual aircraft, and then are taxied or, in some cases, flown to another gate, where employees created the magic of the North Pole.
The process of bringing Fantasy Flights to life begins long before December and is made possible due entirely to volunteers, who coordinate the festivities at each airport. Employees and retirees bake cookies, decorate hangars and gates, raise money and even dress up in holiday themed costumes.
This year, our domestic operations in Phoenix, Cleveland, Los Angeles, San Antonio, Chicago, San Francisco, Houston, Washington D.C., Denver, Honolulu, London and Newark will each create a Fantasy Flight experience for local children to enjoy. And then there's one, perhaps less likely location for Kris Kringle's workshop: The South Pacific.
North Pole in the tropics
Since 2014 our station in Guam has held claim to the southernmost “North Pole-bound departure" in our system, treating youngsters to an unforgettable day. Guam Airport Operations Supervisors Tammy Castro and Jean Babauta have coordinated the event since its inception, with help from a wonderful team of volunteers from United.
“We first heard about Fantasy Flights in 2013," Tammy said. “Our former general manager Meg Parangalan said, 'The stations on the mainland are doing this, we should do one on Guam,' and that was the beginning of it. We held our first one the following year."
From there, the team was off and running, putting on a holiday fest that Guamanians could be proud of. There is a photo booth, a cookie decorating station, face painting, singers, food, candy and an appearance by Santa and Mrs. Claus (“our Santa has a real beard," Jean added with pride). Our employees also partnered with businesses to get donations of food and ornament-making kits so the children can craft their own decorations, a popular Fantasy Flight activity. And you know if Santa is around, then gifts are sure to follow.
Jean described Mr. Claus's unique delivery method: “After we land, everyone goes through the customs area, and when they get to the other side, there's a baggage carousel; on it are wrapped gifts for each one of the children, with big name tags. It's a lot of fun to watch them look for their box and open them up to see their presents inside."
The first year, the employees in Guam invited families from a low-income housing development. The second year they chose an organization dedicated to children with Down syndrome, and for last year's Fantasy Flight they worked with Parents Empowering Parents of Children with Disabilities, Inc. (PEP) and vision and hearing therapists at local schools to recruit participants.
Each Fantasy Flight is the result of months of preparation and countless hours of work on the part of United employees from all around the company, but that effort is rewarded tenfold the minute the children walk through the door and their faces light up.
Tammy and Jean each recounted their most vivid memories from the past couple of years. “The first year, I boarded the plane and flew with the group," Tammy said, “and I would say that probably 90 percent of the kids had never flown before. When we took off, they all started cheering, and that gave me goose bumps."
Jean expressed how important the Fantasy Flights are, not only for the children, but for their parents as well. “The parents feel acknowledged, and they are so appreciative and thankful for everything," she said. “It's nice to see all of that joy."
So, you might be thinking, what's the hardest part of recreating the North Pole in a place like Guam? “Making snow is always a challenge," Jean said, laughing, and Tammy agreed: “Last year we tried using a fog machine to give the illusion of snow," Tammy said, “but what a mess! Now we have two snow machines that shoot out artificial snow, and we always ask the airport authority to pump up the air conditioning on the day of the flight."
Snow or no snow, it's safe to say that the Fantasy Flights are a memory that the children of Guam will carry with them for life. And who's to say that Santa can't trade in his trademark coat and boots for board shorts and flip flops, at least for one day?
San Antonio Fantasy Flight jingles all the way
15 years later, Houston 737 Captain Vern Robinson still remembers the four-year-old girl in a dress. He was prepping to fly his first Fantasy Flight when the little girl with a smile as wide as a Boeing 747 approached him and said hi. "Seeing this cancer-stricken girl, roughly the same age as my kids who were sitting at home all healthy... that stuck with me and made me feel very fortunate," Vern said. Vern's been flying the San Antonio Fantasy Flight ever since, and he was there last weekend to fly this year's, which was San Antonio's 31st. This one took on a bit of a special meaning for him, as San Antonio partners with the American Cancer Society to fly kids with cancer to the "North Pole," and his wife has recently overcome cancer.
Fantasy Flight schedule:
December 1: Phoenix
December 2: Los Angeles, Houston, Chicago, San Antonio and San Francisco
December 5: Honolulu
December 7: Guam
December 9: Washington D.C. Dulles, Denver, Cleveland
December 12: London
December 13: NewarkFollow all of the activity on social media using #UAFantasyFlights
Transforming Newark into the North Pole
Right now, around the world, brave members of America's armed forces are on duty, defending our freedom and upholding our values.
When not laser-focused on the mission at hand, they're looking forward to the day when their service to our nation is fulfilled and they can reunite with their families.
They are also imagining how they can use their hard-earned skills to build an exciting, rewarding and important career when they return home.
I want them to look no further than United Airlines.
That's why we are focused on recruiting, developing and championing veterans across our company, demonstrating to our returning women and men in uniform that United is the best possible place for them to put their training, knowledge, discipline and character to the noblest use.
They've developed their knowledge and skills in some of the worst of times. We hope they will use those skills to keep United performing at our best, all of the time.
That's why we are accelerating our efforts to onboard the best and the brightest, and substantially increasing our overall recruitment numbers each year.
We recently launched a new sponsorship program to support onboarding veterans into United and a new care package program to support deployed employees. It's one more reason why United continues to rank high - and rise higher - as a top workplace for veterans. In fact, we jumped 21 spots this year on Indeed.com's list of the top U.S workplaces for veterans. This is a testament to our increased recruiting efforts, as well as our efforts to create a culture where veterans feel valued and supported.
We use the special reach and resources of our global operations to partner with outstanding organizations. This is our way of stepping up and going the extra mile for all those who've stepped forward to answer our nation's call.
We do this year-round, and the month of November is no exception; however, it is exceptional, especially as we mark Veterans Day.
As we pay tribute to all Americans who have served in uniform and carried our flag into battle throughout our history, let's also keep our thoughts with the women and men who are serving around the world, now. They belong to a generation of post-9/11 veterans who've taken part in the longest sustained period of conflict in our history.
Never has so much been asked by so many of so few.... for so long. These heroes represent every color and creed. They are drawn from across the country and many immigrated to our shores.
They then freely choose to serve in the most distant and dangerous regions of the world, to protect democracy in its moments of maximum danger.
Wherever they serve - however they serve - whether they put on a uniform each day, or serve in ways which may never be fully known, these Americans wake up each morning willing to offer the "last full measure of devotion" on our behalf.
Every time they do so, they provide a stunning rebuke to the kinds of voices around the world who doubt freedom and democracy's ability to defend itself.
Unfortunately, we know there are those who seem to not understand – or say they do not - what it is that inspires a free people to step forward, willing to lay down their lives so that their country and fellow citizens might live.
But, we – who are both the wards and stewards of the democracy which has been preserved and handed down to us by veterans throughout our history – do understand.
We know that inciting fear and hatred of others is a source of weakness, not strength. And such divisive rhetoric can never inspire solidarity or sacrifice like love for others and love of country can.
It is this quality of devotion that we most honor in our veterans - those who have served, do serve and will serve.
On behalf of a grateful family of 96,000, thank you for your service.
Each year around Veterans Day, Indeed, one of the world's largest job search engines, rates companies based on actual employee reviews to identify which ones offer the best opportunities and benefits for current and former U.S. military members. Our dramatic improvement in the rankings this year reflects a stronger commitment than ever before to actively recruiting, developing and nurturing veteran talent.
"We've spent a lot of time over the past 12 months looking for ways to better connect with our employees who served and attract new employees from the military ranks," said Global Catering Operations and Logistics Managing Director Ryan Melby, a U.S. Army veteran and the president of our United for Veterans business resource group.
"Our group is launching a mentorship program, for instance, where we'll assign existing employee-veterans to work with new hires who come to us from the armed forces. Having a friend and an ally like that, someone who can help you translate the skills you picked up in the military to what we do as a civilian company, is invaluable. That initiative is still in its infancy, but I'm really optimistic about what it can do for United and for our veteran population here."
Impressively, we were the only one of our industry peers to move up on the list, further evidence that we're on a good track as a company.
The question of where David Ferrari was had haunted retired U.S. Army Sergeant Major Vincent Salceto for the better part of 66 years.
Rarely did a week go by that Salceto didn't think about his old friend. Often, he relived their last moments together in a recurring nightmare. In it, it's once again 1953 and Salceto and Ferrari are patrolling a valley in what is now North Korea. Suddenly, explosions shatter the silence and flares light up the night sky.
Crouching under a barrage of bullets, Salceto, the squad's leader, drags two of his men to safety, then he sees Ferrari lying face down on the ground. He runs out to help him, but he's too late. And that's when he always wakes up.
Italian Americans from opposite coasts – Salceto from Philadelphia, Ferrari from San Francisco – the two became close, almost like brothers, after being assigned to the same unit during the Korean War. When Ferrari died, it hit Salceto hard.
"After that, I never let anyone get close to me like I did with Dave," he says. "I couldn't; I didn't want to go through that again."
When the war ended, Salceto wanted to tell Ferrari's family how brave their son and brother had been in battle. Most of all, he wanted to salute his friend at his gravesite and give him a proper farewell.
For decades, though, Salceto had no luck finding his final resting place or locating any of his relatives. Then, in June of this year, he uncovered a clue that led him to the Italian Cemetary in Colma, California, where Ferrari is buried.
Within days, Salceto, who lives in Franklinville, New Jersey, was packed and sitting aboard United Flight 731 from Philadelphia to San Francisco with his wife, Amy, and daughter, Donna Decker, on his way to Colma. For such a meaningful trip, he even wore his Army dress uniform.
That's how San Francisco-based flight attendant Noreen Baldwin spotted him as he walked down the jet bridge to get on the plane.
"I saw him and said to the other crew members, 'Oh my goodness, look at this guy,'" she says. "I knew there had to be a story."
The two struck up a conversation and Salceto told Baldwin why he was traveling. She got emotional listening to him talk and made a point of fussing over him, making sure he and his family had everything they needed.
About halfway through the flight, Baldwin had an idea. She and her fellow crew members would write messages of encouragement to Salceto and invite his fellow passengers to do the same.
"We did it discreetly," says Baldwin. "I asked the customers if they saw the man in uniform, which most had, and asked them if they wanted to write a few words for him on a cocktail napkin. A lot of people did; families did it together, parents got their kids to write something. After the first few rows, I was so choked up that I could barely talk."
When Baldwin surprised Salceto with dozens of hand-written notes, he, too, was speechless. He laid the stack on his lap and read each one. At the same time, the pilots made an announcement about the veteran over the loud speaker, after which the customers on board burst into applause.
"It seems contrived, and I hate using the word organic, but that's what it was; it just happened," Baldwin says. "Mr. Salceto was so loveable and humble, and what he was doing was so incredible, it felt like the right thing to do. And you could tell he was touched."
On June 27, Salceto finally stood before Ferrari's grave and said that long-awaited goodbye. As a trumpeter played "Taps," he unpinned a medal from his jacket and laid it reverently on the headstone.
"I had gotten a Bronze Star for my actions [the night Ferrari died] with a 'V' for valor, and that was the medal I put on Dave's grave," says Salceto, pausing to fight back tears. "I thought he was more deserving of it than I was."
For the first time in years, Salceto felt at peace. His mission was accomplished.