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Serving Up Dependability

How Rafael Hernandez’s around-the-clock dedication earned him a brand new car

Author Peter Rapalus


There is more to dependability than just showing up every day. If you ask the United Airlines Chelsea Food Services employees at Newark Liberty International Airport which of their colleagues best personifies dependability, many would point to Rafael “Ralphy” Hernandez, one of the United midnight shift mechanics who helps keep the huge operation humming along to service hundreds of flights a day.

Hernandez has turned up for work on time every single day since joining the company eight years ago, and the quality of his work is what made his colleagues so proud when he was among 11 United employees chosen in this year’s Perfect Attendance drawing to win a new Ford vehicle of his choice. Hernandez, who has two school-age children, chose the Ford Explorer and is planning several road trips with his kids and his wife of 16 years.

Nearly one-third of United’s employees qualified for the annual drawing, and Hernandez’s colleagues say he especially deserves the car and the recognition because of the quality of his work, night after night, year after year.

“I’m really happy for Ralphy,” says Hernandez’s team leader on the midnight shift, Wiktor Domagala.

“He always takes on the tough jobs and is always the first one to volunteer for the tough work or to pitch in when someone else needs help, on the job and outside work.”

At an around-the-clock operation, the most critical judges of any shift tend to be members of the following shift. Emmanuel Sepe, who works the day shift after Hernandez, notes, “He makes it easy for us to start our shift by how thoroughly he works on his. He never leaves us any surprises and always manages to do some extra work during the night that makes it easier for us to focus on what we need to do during the day.”

Hernandez and Sepe are among several dozen mechanics and other professionals who tend to the space where nearly 1,100 people work to produce the food and beverages offered on United’s Newark departures. The airline operates 145,000 square feet of catering facilities for United and United Express flights—facilities that have machinery, fixtures and infrastructure that require constant care to prevent issues that could lead to catering-related flight delays.

“We are very far behind the scenes here, especially on the midnight shift, but we never lose sight of what our work means to the customers who will be boarding our planes later that day,” Hernandez says. “Safety is our top priority at all times, of course, and that includes the safety of all the food that goes through here.”

Maintaining the proper temperatures in various locations—such as the receiving, storage and preparation areas, as well as the massive dishwashing assemblies—keeps Hernandez and his colleagues busy most of the time. Looking for, developing and then executing safety and process improvements fills in what little downtime they do enjoy. As with any well-run industrial operation, Hernandez says, “We spend much more time on preventative and scheduled maintenance than on fixing things that broke down. And we’re all encouraged to look for things that need improvement.”

Hernandez’s supervisor, Rob Schulz, appreciates the mechanic’s diligence. “It’s a real relief to me knowing that Ralphy is on the midnight shift,” Schulz says. “He takes his responsibilities seriously, is not afraid to speak up when he sees something out of place and provides great feedback on how we can improve the operation and make it more safe.”

Hernandez says one day he may seek daytime shifts, but for now he’s happy on the midnight shift, as it enables him and his wife to share the responsibilities of raising their children and taking care of other domestic business. Of course, dropping the kids off at school will be even more enjoyable in that new Explorer. “This came at just the right time,” Hernandez says. “My car was getting old, and I was thinking that it was time to replace it. Now, it’s replaced with something a little newer than I was thinking about!”

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