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Fly the Eco-Friendly Skies

Chris Woods helps United achieve its environmental goals

Author Rachel Ayres

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Chris Woods is overseeing some big changes at United, but you’re not likely to notice them on board an aircraft or at an airport. As an Environmental Compliance senior manager at United, he deals mostly in waste and how to minimize, manage, and eliminate it. 

“We’re trying to divert as much as we can from landfills,” Woods says. “We’re a huge company, so the little things add up. Everything makes a difference.”

Employees at his office, at Washington Dulles International Airport, may not even notice some of those small changes. 

“If you walk into an office, you won’t see a trash can,” Woods says. “Instead you’ll find a recycling container. The trash can for municipal waste is in the break room. We want people to think about all the things we absentmindedly throw away that can actually be recycled.”

At Dulles, Woods spearheaded a project to significantly reduce the number of times waste containers were emptied, or “tipped.” Thanks to new trash compactors, the containers at United’s new maintenance hangar at Dulles are tipped once every five weeks. Prior to the installation of the compactors, that happened every two to three days.

“This project has been so successful that we’re working on rolling it out to other airports, too,” Woods says.

He’s particularly proud of the compliance network he and his team built and maintain. It’s made up of current employees who manage local environmental programs in addition to their primary job responsibilities. The employee volunteers regularly provide feedback to the environmental team and share their ideas for eco-friendly improvements. Putting that power in the hands of employees is part of what has made United’s environmental program so successful, according to Chris—who encourages similar practices at home and in his community.

“My sons and I regularly do community service projects like roadside trash pick-ups and watershed cleanups,” he says. “At home, we compost leaves and recycle. I want my sons to understand how important it is to take care of and preserve our natural resources.” 

Each year, United’s environmental program, Eco-Skies, awards a total of $50,000 to organizations that protect or enhance the environment. Woods has nominated a few organizations for these grants, and the money has been used for projects to eradicate invasive plant species and rehabilitate bee colonies.

Woods believes he has hit his stride with the environmental work he’s doing—a calling he may not have found if an old friend hadn’t suggested he take a part-time job loading bags and pushing back planes on the ramp at Dulles for one of United’s regional partner airlines. One day, he bumped into a co-worker in a different division who was looking for an emergency response manager.

A trained firefighter and emergency medical technician, Woods had done extensive emergency response work during his time working at a local fire department. He had experience liaising with emergency responders, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and the Environmental Protection Agency, and, looking for a new challenge, he accepted. 

His next move was to the safety department at a United Express partner, and from there he joined United’s environmental group.

“Safety and environmental compliance go hand in hand,” Woods explains. “Take our aircraft ramp debris checks, for example. When employees pick up debris, it not only prevents injuries to employees and aircraft damage, but we’re also making sure that debris doesn’t make it into the environment.”

As with many of his fellow employees, it didn’t take long for Chris to get hooked on the airline industry.

“It’s been one of the best experiences of my life, being part of what it takes to make an airline work,” he says. “I’m still in awe of what our teams accomplish every day, and that’s why I like it so much.”

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