When Cindy Szadokierski first moved from customer service at United Airlines to a management job on the operations side in 1993, she often found herself the only woman in meetings discussing the nuts and bolts of running an airline. "It truly was a man's world," she said.
Today, that still happens from time to time. But instead of being a nervous newcomer, she's usually the one running the meeting.
As vice president in charge of United's largest hub at O'Hare International Airport in Chicago, Szadokierski oversees 4,000 ground workers, eight miles of baggage belts and 630 flights a day. She is among a growing band of women across the airline industry who are breaking ground by taking over high-profile officer positions running big hubs, heading airport ground operations, leading aircraft maintenance and managing airline-operation control centers.
For at least a decade, women have been steadily moving into airline staff jobs in the fields of government, media and human relations; law and finance; and oversight of flight attendants. But operations running the gamut from dispatchers to ramp workers to safety and de-icing until recently remained largely off-limits.
The shift is partly due to the airlines' lessening dependence on the military for recruits and a wave of retirements by men as the industry has gone through a series of bankruptcies.
"There was a time when nearly all our pilots and mechanics came out of the military, and there weren't many women in the military," said Jeffrey Brundage, senior vice president of human resources at AMR Corp.'s American Airlines. "We weren't as enlightened, but the male dominance was by circumstance, not intention."
Michael Bell, co-leader of the aviation, aerospace and defense practice for executive recruiters Spencer Stuart, said the airlines are making progress, but too slowly. And oddly, the rise of women in operations brings a whole new glass ceiling. "CEOs used to come from operations," Bell says. "That was always the case."
But in recent years, U.S. airline chief executives have tended to come from finance, law or marketing. For the women who finally are ascending in operations, he said, "I'm not sure it gets them out of the ghetto."
Last year, Northwest Airlines promoted Crystal Knotek, 46, who started as a reservations agent 22 years ago, to senior vice president, customer service and airport operations.
At American, Peggy Sterling, 58, who started as a "stewardess" her word in 1970, has run that carrier's giant hubs in Chicago and Dallas and for the past four years has been the airline's vice president of safety, security and environment.
Terri Pope runs the Charlotte, N.C., hub for US Airways Group Inc. Alaska Air Group Inc.'s Horizon Air unit has a female vice president of maintenance and engineering. Southwest Airlines Co. has a woman in the job of vice president of ground operations, not to mention a female chief financial officer and a woman president Colleen Barrett, the highest-ranking female in the U.S. industry.
At this time of extreme airline cost-cutting, the women tend to bring a much-needed focus on customer service an area in which they normally worked at the start of their careers that is often lacking in operations.
Pete McDonald, chief operating officer of United parent UAL Corp., said they have made "a huge difference" at his company.
For instance, he said, "we had serious issues with operations at O'Hare. So we put the best, brightest, most communicative person" in the job.
United, where 45 percent of the 55,000 employees are women, now has eight female vice presidents among its 22 overall, and three old friends are in hard-core operating roles.
Besides Szadokierski, there is Joanne Calabrese, a 38-year veteran who a year ago assumed the new role of vice president chiefly responsible for the performance of United's hubs in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Denver and Washington's Dulles International Airport.
About the same time, Alexandria Marren, with 20 years of service, was promoted to vice president of operational services, meaning she oversees United's system operations center the airline's nerve center for flight planning and tracking and manages relations with its regional affiliates, which operate 2,100 daily flights.
Szadokierski, 48, was a high-school French teacher with a yen for travel when she joined United 22 years ago in a low-level reservations job. She moved up and around, completing on-the-job learning in domains as diverse as corporate real estate, sales, human resources and commuter operations in five cities.
Operations thrilled her from the start, she said, and she thrived in supervisory airport positions in Washington, D.C., Miami and Greensboro, N.C. She became United's customer-service boss at New York's John F. Kennedy International Airport and then general manager of United's Dulles hub, where she succeeded another woman.
"I took advantage of opportunities, took risks and moved around," she said. "I've dumped [lavatories], loaded airplanes, cleaned 'em."
Szadokierski (her business card comes with a pronouncer: "Shad-ah-ker-skee") says her favorite times now are her weekly afternoon walkabouts on the O'Hare ramp and her weekly morning jaunts through the terminal.
On a high-speed walk through the check-in area on a recent morning, she greets employees and passengers, high-fives the sky caps out on the curb and darts into a Red Carpet Club for a quick look.
Later, she pops her head into a basement classroom where a dozen new customer-service agents are being trained. She quizzes them on three-letter airport codes and passport rules, then cheerfully tells them to smile and bend with their knees, not their backs.
"I started as a res agent," she said. "My story will tell you the sky's the limit at our company."