Alicia Gabriel says her job is to remove distinctions between United and United Express
Author A. Averyl Re
“I like the comforting chaos of start-up opportunities,” Alicia Gabriel says, explaining the thrill she gets from her responsibilities as a senior manager of performance for United Express. In fact, she has gotten a thrill from her entire career with United Airlines—a career marked by start-up opportunities.
Gabriel is one of five performance managers who oversee responsibilities for United’s regional services. “We are responsible for well over 500 aircraft, from prop aircraft up to our newest Embraer E175,” she says. “Express fills in where it’s not profitable to fly mainline flights—for example, New York to Washington at non-peak times.”
She recognizes that not everyone understands the need for regional service, but she explains that United Express allows a depth and breadth of service United would not otherwise be able to offer and brings customers to United’s domestic and international network. “If we didn’t have Express, we would not be able to serve many of the communities we serve today,” she says. “That would mean people would have to seek alternate modes of travel or just not be able to travel at all. United Express enables our customers to get where they want to go or need to go.”
In her 27 years at United, Gabriel has had her hand in lots of areas, helping to get divisions and services off the ground, from helping integrate DC-10s into United’s freighter service to launching the Cargo Support center. “I had a great VP in Cargo,” she recalls. “I remember the conversations: ‘You can do anything you want. You’re young. Pick opportunities, and opportunities will pick you.’” Eleven years ago, one opportunity that picked her was to be in a core group to determine the future strategy of Express—a very small group that has not stopped growing.
“We continue to grow and build,” Gabriel says. “It’s the best job I’ve had in the company. I get to work outside the company and experience a lot of entrepreneurial spirit, but I also get to work with United and develop myself in so many different areas. I don’t think other jobs offer that.”
Based in Chicago, where she grew up, Gabriel travels 60 percent of the time, whether to meet with regional airline partners or to coordinate operations at hubs and other airports. “We oversee more than 150 airports, with a lot of small airports that are part of the community, so we have to represent the airline there, working with community groups and doing airport planning.”
Sometimes her travel takes her as far away as Brazil to take delivery of new airplanes, which must be integrated into the fleet. “When we bring in new aircraft, it’s not just the plane itself,” she says, “but how do we integrate it into the system? How do we train all the personnel for this new aircraft? It’s not just bringing it on at United, but bringing it on with our partner. I’ve done that a few times—from day none to day one. It could be a year or a year and a half from the time we first decide to fly an aircraft to the time the aircraft takes flight.”
In the end, whether bringing on new aircraft or bringing on new amenities, such as the fresh food Express is introducing onboard this month, Gabriel says she and her team never forget the end goal: creating a wonderful travel experience for the customer.
“We are the extension of United,” she says. ”We want it to all look and feel as similar to the customer as it can. I think customers understand that.”