University of Iowa alumna Michelle McCarthy is using her business expertise to help United Airlines improve the experience of its customers by better equipping the company’s flight attendants.

Many people who have flown on airplanes have at least one tale of woe. 

As director of flight experience and operations for United Airlines, Michelle McCarthy’s job is to increase customer satisfaction onboard the company’s fleet of 770 planes. The best way to do that, she says, is to empower its 25,000 flight attendants.

“My job is to help provide our flight attendants with the tools, resources, and equipment they need to do the best job they can do and deliver the best product and service to our customers that they can,” says McCarthy, who started with the Chicago-based company in 2011 as an auditor. “That means that I spend a lot of time working with IT to build new technology—for example, a mobile phone app that flight attendants can use to quickly resolve a traveler’s problem.”

“My UI education taught me not to be afraid to take on a challenge and to do something I’m not sure I can do. Until you challenge yourself, you’re not going to know your limits and what you can do.”

Michelle McCarthy
director of flight experience and operations for United Airlines

McCarthy, who graduated from the University of Iowa in 2007 with a degree in accounting and management information systems, works from her office at the company’s headquarters in Willis Tower. She also regularly flies the competition to see what other airlines are doing and identify where and how United could improve. Once an idea takes shape—for example, a beverage cart with added features that still fits within the narrow aisle of a jet—she works with designers and marketers to create a product.

“When I get a compliment from a flight attendant telling me that I really helped them out or something our team created really made the difference for them in a situation on the aircraft, that’s motivating for me,” says McCarthy, who moved to her current position within United in 2017.

McCarthy began her career as a certified public accountant with the firm PricewaterhouseCoopers, where she had served two summer internships as a UI undergraduate. It was a demanding yet fulfilling job, but an inquiry from United drew her interest. She had studied abroad in Australia during her senior year at Iowa and longed to travel more, and working for a large airline seemed to promise adventure.

“I thought I could get back to traveling and exploring the world at United,” says McCarthy, who has since traveled to places from Maui to Munich to South Africa. “To me, the airline industry was exciting and complex, and United was somewhere I could see myself really learning and growing.”

As a teenager in Bettendorf, Iowa, McCarthy was interested in math and sports. She cheered for the Hawkeyes and watched as her older sister found success as a UI student. Studying accounting at Iowa seemed like a perfect fit—and it was, she says.

“My UI education gave me a really good foundation in business, and it taught me discipline,” she says. “Accounting is a very difficult major, and it takes a lot of discipline and hard work. That prepared me for my job at PricewaterhouseCoopers, which also was very challenging. Perhaps more importantly, though, it taught me not to be afraid to take on a challenge and to do something I’m not sure I can do. Until you challenge yourself, you’re not going to know your limits and what you can do.”

In particular, McCarthy is grateful for her campus involvement in Delta Sigma Pi, a coed business fraternity in the Tippie College of Business that focuses on the development of professional skills, networking, and community service. Not only did she make friends, she connected with a group that continues to be a valuable job resource.

“Joining that group was one of the best decisions I made at Iowa,” she says. “I have stayed very close with all the individuals I met there, and they are now successful business people across the world. It’s a great network to have. If I had a different career aspiration, wanted to go work at a different company, or just needed coaching and advice in my profession, I could turn to them.”

For now, though, McCarthy says she is content working for United and helping the company connect people around the world.

“I particularly love hearing stories about how we were able to serve a customer dealing with a family emergency because our flight attendants had the tools and the power to help them through their journey and get them where they needed to go,” she says. “That’s what makes me most proud to work for United.”

Produced by the UI Office of Strategic Communication
Sara Epstein Moninger
Photography and video
Matt Jansen

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