MIAMI — In his job, Howard Attarian serves as the carrier’s FAA certificate director of operations and leads the flight operations division at United Airlines. His responsibilities include developing and implementing pilot contracts, policies and procedures, overseeing all pilot domiciles, training, flight standards and flight technology, as well as the division’s operating and capital budgets.
Howard Attarian, Senior Vice President Flight Operations, United Airlines.
Howard Attarian served as vice president of flight operations for United from 2008 to 2013, after serving as a pilot for Northwest Airlines for 23 years. He was a highly decorated officer and aviator in the US Air Force, a former pilot on the renowned United States Air Force Demonstration Squadron “Thunderbirds,” and is rated to fly the Boeing 757, 767 and 777.
Attarian spoke to Airways about his military background, labor relations at United, the airline’s pilot training and hiring pilots for the future.
Airways: How important do you feel your training as a military pilot has helped you in this job?
Howard Attarian: You go through training in Officer Candidate School, go through leadership schools and all the challenges of that. I’ve learned that people can earn their pedigrees in different ways. For example, they don’t always go through a formal airline management track to become a manager.
In my military career, my squadron to schools like Air Command and Staff College and Air War College offered top-notch leadership training that were great opportunities in the service branches, but also in life. They give you the best foundation and I’m proud of that. Pilots are not necessarily fond of going to school unless it’s learning to fly planes, so these opportunities allowed me the ability to groom others and be well diversified.
Labor relations have been rocky since the merger with Continental. CEO Oscar Munoz said that labor relations are a top priority for United. How much of a role do you think his words had in reaching deals with the pilots, dispatchers, mechanics and flight attendants?
I think Oscar set out on a vision and created a set of proof points. The thing he valued, and what he said shortly after coming into his office, was he wanted to create a trust cascade with our employees. His top goal was to complete negotiations. And didn’t want to do it with a blank checkbook, but with a reasonable checkbook.
A year later, it’s all done. Oscar’s vision and support have been very effective in having negotiations go forward.
Now that you have merged the flight attendant and pilot contracts, how is that improving efficiencies?
The pilot contract was a fast-track one, mainly about tackling pay rates as opposed to Section 6 contract negotiations, where you look at the entire contract that includes work rules. This contract gives us breathing room and time to work on issues. This contract also bought us good will. It showed that we recognize our employees and that we’re building on that trust with them.
The contract is a living breathing document, and we continuously look outside of just getting it done. We are negotiating letters of agreement and memorandums of understanding to take opportunities to make a contract that’s better for pilots and the company.
How much of a challenge was it to create a unified set of policies and procedures for the merged airline?
Any merger is is difficult. I was there when Northwest Airlines merged with Republic and when Northwest merged with Delta. Plain and simple, people drive what occurs in a merger and culture is the biggest driver. It can be an enormous challenge to not only harvest synergies to do a merger, but also handle two different cultures.
In the United-Continental merger, we had hundreds of parallel processes that came to the table that we had to merge and bring the airlines together, especially in one where we were dubbed a merger of equals.
Fast-forward to today, we’re making it work, but that process is an ongoing evolution. We have to continue making adjustments and changes as we go, and people drive that. Culture is a huge issue, so in the end, we are moving forward with a laser focus with the trust and respect of the employees, which helps build integrity and credibility.
United is spending $40 million to build a global flight training facility on a site near the old Stapleton Airport in Denver. Why was it important to build this new facility?
Again, it is about people. You are trying to run one of the world’s largest airlines and you have a geographically dispersed training facility and individuals who you are trying to lead. You are trying to get them all on one page, so it gets back to creating an environment where you can drive culture, standardization and training all up to the same level.
Along with that, you create a milestone of efficiency and you centralize it to create a more standard product and a great team. It gives you a more refined training product and it is easier to manage those people that are in the training center.
So the principal reason for this is to move our assets into a centralized location so we can manage those standards and the training and have a culture that will create extraordinary pilots, whether they are a new hire or somebody that has gone through recall.
Why did you choose Denver and when is the central schedule to open?
The center is open. We looked at three cities — Denver, Houston and Chicago. We had a fairly large presence in Chicago that we looked at. But in the end, we chose Denver because our needs were for [a facility that was] roughly 500,000 square feet with 26 to 32 simulator bays. When we did the final analysis in making the business case, Denver became the compelling answer because we had a facility there that is 600,000 square feet and we would have 32 sim bases with very generous and proactive incentives from the city of Denver.
The other two existing facilities would have required substantial construction. It is expected to be complete on September 25, 2017. We have phase one done, but unfortunately, we are now living in a house that we’re also remodeling, which is obviously a challenge. But our team has done a great job. We have a huge project team leading that, so we’re managing that and I am very happy with the progress, as the project is on time. We are looking forward to getting it completed.
When the center is at full capacity, how many pilots will it be able to train on any given day?
On an average day, we have at least 70 training events. It’s a combination of pilots that are coming back and getting their annual checks and new pilots. We have a variety of training that goes, on but we train pretty much 24 hours a day, seven days a week, with the exception of the 2:00 a.m. to 6:00 a.m.
Not every training is a sequel, so sometimes not every training is a four-hour event. I would tell you here today that from this point last year until today, we have conducted almost 27,000 training events. It’s a very busy place.
We have all been hearing about the impending pilot shortage, What are you doing to prepare United for that?
We have a full-blown and very proactive new hire department that is being managed by my managing director of training out of Denver. We are engaged in a variety of programs where we partner with some of our regional airlines like CommutAir and ExpressJet. We are also partnering with universities and in talks with others about crew programs.
We’re also involved groups like Women in Aviation, International and the Organization of Black Aerospace Professionals. We have spent an enormous amount of time recruiting. The combination of all this gives us a healthy pool today and would enable us to meet our needs. We have about 1100 pilots that we plan to hire next year.
The short answer to a difficult problem is that we have many irons in the fire with regards to cultivating relationships with our regional airlines, the universities and other recruiting efforts, so I am happy today. I don’t know what the world will look like 10 years from now, but we are happy with where we are in the engagement.
What are your priorities for 2017?
The number one priority is to fly and run a safe airline. Anything else doesn’t really matter if we don’t do it safely. From the airline side of the house, that is really what I expect out of my team and what I obviously expect as well.
From the employer’s standpoint, one of our highest priorities is to continue to strive for is to continuously earn the trust of the employees. There is a lot that goes into that but earning the trust of our employees enables us not just to run a safe airline but a reliable airline. Those are three of our very high priorities that are my priorities.