FILE - In this July 8, 2015, file photo, United Airlines planes are parked at their gates as another plane, top, taxis past them at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Houston. United Airlines says it will raise the limit to $10,000 on payments to customers who give up seats on oversold flights and will increase training for employees as it deals with fallout from the video of a passenger being violently dragged from his seat. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip, File)

United Airlines held a ribbon-cutting ceremony at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in celebration of its newly expanded 56,000-square-foot Global Inflight Training Center on Jan. 17, that will bring an estimated 1,800 jobs to the Greater Houston area this year.

It includes new classrooms, additional cabin and door trainers and a state-of-the-art aquatic center that features a 125,000-gallon pool and mock fuselage to practice “ditching,” the safe evacuation of the plane in the unlikely event of a water landing. 

But the even bigger news is this $32 million expansion project not only more than doubles the available training space, it supports the airline’s plan to hire and train 15,000 people in 2023, including 4,000 flight attendants.

And according to Alexis Bushnell, an IAH-based flight attendant, United is the place to be.

“United is an expanding company, and we value bringing in people from all different cultures, backgrounds and different facets of life,” said Bushnell, who has been with United for almost a year. “Not only do we commute them from one place to the next, but we bring them in and make them family. So, I’d say, working here, we’re truly united.”

During the huge grand opening, with United leaders from across the country present, there was the expected hyper-positive company talk. But for Bushnell, the “rah-rah” talk about United being “family” is very real. And personal.

“My cousin, she works here at the Inflight Training Center. And if it weren’t for her, I wouldn’t have known about this amazing opportunity to not only experience new people, but experience new cultures, new countries, and even in talent acquisition,” shared Bushnell, who added that she has two additional cousins who are now United employees.

“And we are all women of color—young women of color. So, that’s the best representation I can give you is home. I’m home.”

And she’s not the only one.

Nathan Pickney, an instructor evaluator specialist at the new facility, is literally Houston-born and raised. And fired up about what the new space offers.

“We have state-of-the-art door trainers. We have a state-of-the-art service trainer where we can really hone in customer service with our new hire trainees, as well as the aquatic center where we didn’t have that for a while, when now they can participate in what’s known as a ditching that in the unlikely event that an aircraft would have to emergency evacuate in the water, our flight attendants are trained to know how to get all of the customers offered the aircraft,” he said.

Pickney, like Bushnell, has a personal attachment to United and his place in the company’s growth.

“When I started working here in ‘99, I was the only African American male in my class. And now, 40% of the class are African Americans, which is really exciting. United has really gotten into diversity, equity and inclusion. We’re a global airline. We fly all over the world. So, we want to make sure that anyone can see someone that represents them, which is really exciting.”

Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner joined United CEO Scott Kirby at a ceremonial ribbon-cutting event to officially open the new training center.

Congresswoman Sheila Jackson Lee surrounded by United Airlines flight attendant trainees during the grand opening of United’s Inflight Raining Center at IAH, Tuesday, Jan. 17, 2023. Photo by Aswad Walker.

Jackson Lee reiterated Bushnell’s celebration of United’s commitment to diversity.

“We’ve all spoken of diversity, which is very important to me—diversity in leadership, diversity in service personnel with a good heart,” said Jackson Lee. “And you’ve worked very hard to make that part of your manifest.”

During the festivities, Jackson Lee took the opportunity to go back down memory lane while reflecting on United’s industry leadership into the future.

“I’ve had the privilege of representing Bush Intercontinental Airport for my entire tenure. And I remember the moments after 9/11. And I remember the literal shutdown of the aviation industry, and of the skies, and how we had to work to come back. And you (Scott Kirby) are right, your planning really helped face the other side of the pandemic in the words of United, ‘Good leads the way,’” she said.

Turner agreed with Jackson Lee’s assessment that the latest United institution is a positive for the Bayou City.

“This Global Inflight Training Center is the largest of the seven that (United) has, and that bodes well for the city of Houston,” said Turner, who noted United’s economic impact on the city.

“If not the largest, it’s very close to the largest employer that we have in the city. But in an indirect sense, in terms of the benefits of the city, United supports probably about another 56,000 employees locally. So, the economic impact of United is more than a billion dollars; about $1.2 billion.”

Speaking on United’s positive earnings numbers, Kirby talked about additional impacts.

“What I’m come to realize recently is that the good numbers really aren’t the story as much as the fact is that what United has done, is (we’re) really the only airline in the world that recognized what the recovery was going to look like, and therefore, used the pandemic to invest in the future,” said Kirby. “This state-of-the-art training center is one shining example of that, as we’re training over 4,000 flight attendants a year through this academy. Just here in Houston, we used the pandemic to build a $360 million baggage facility and built a new maintenance facility, maintenance hanger with all the jobs that go along with that.”

United plans to train more than 600 flight attendants per month at the newly expanded Houston facility and the expansion project is another example of United’s focus on long-term investments in infrastructure, tools and technology to support its United Next growth plan as well as the airline’s continued commitment to Houston.

“The best flight attendants in the industry deserve the best, most modern training facility in the country,” said United CEO Scott Kirby. “This expansion project is yet another example of an investment we made during the depths of the pandemic that will support our employees, further improve our ability to deliver great service and set United up for success in 2023 and beyond.”

New United flight attendants will go through a six-week and a half training course at the Houston facility and then return every 18 months to stay current on their qualifications. The campus includes inflight service training spaces with mock seats, a 400+-seat auditorium and a public address room where trainees can practice their onboard announcements. The centerpiece of the building is a new Aquatic Center that includes a 125,000-gallon pool to practice the safe evacuation of the plane in the unlikely event of a water landing.

As part of the construction of the facility, and in support of Mayor Turner’s climate action plan to build local storm-resilient infrastructure, United included an underground prefabricated storm detention vault that can hold more than 268,000 gallons of water and store stormwater runoff in large underground pipes or vaults.

“United continues to be a great partner and business leader in the city of Houston, connecting Houstonians to the world and investing in vital infrastructure projects that help enhance the travel experience for millions of travelers,” said Turner. “I congratulate United on opening its global Inflight Training Center, a testament to the region’s workforce and pro-business environment.”

United has operated for more than 70 years from its hub at George Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH) and is one of the largest employers with over 11,000 local employees and plans to hire 1,800 more locally in 2023. The airline maintains a corporate office presence downtown and is the leading carrier at IAH, with about 400 flights per day and more direct flights to Latin America and the Caribbean than any other airline.

According to a new study by Compass Lexecon, United’s IAH hub and spending by foreign visitors to Houston on United and Star Alliance member flights support an estimated $5.3 billion per year in gross domestic product in Texas.