As a leader in the global airfreight industry, Atlas Air is known first and foremost for carrying cargo of every shape and size to points throughout the world.
But Atlas transports people, too, and Ground Ops Training Instructor Michelle Cecala is dedicated to ensuring those flights depart and arrive safely and efficiently. She and Ground Ops Training Instructor Tony Kutter focus on the passenger side of training for Ground Ops.
“Most of Atlas’ flights are cargo,” said Michelle. “Tony and I are responsible for training all the PSRs and vendors that work on the passenger flights. Our flights carry the military and all charter flights, which is a huge, ever-changing operation. It’s full of challenges, but I am a problem solver, so I love it.”
Aviation seems to run in Michelle’s family – her paternal grandmother was a flight attendant with Continental Airlines and her paternal grandfather was in sales in aviation. Michelle herself planned for a career working with animals – as a vet tech and working with the Houston SPCA helping with animal rescues. But she eventually found her way to aviation, and it proved to be her true calling.
“My friend was working at UPS in Ground Ops and thought I would enjoy the role,” said Michelle, who still devotes her time to animal rescue. “The job had good hours and great benefits, and even though I had no interest (at the time) in aviation, I decided to apply.”
Michelle’s friend was working at UPS in Ground Ops and suggested she would enjoy the work. So, she applied, was hired, and spent the next few years as a Ramp Supervisor at George Bush International Airport (IAH) in Houston managing Ground Operations for UPS.
“At UPS, we were working the express flights, and it was all about speed and efficiency,” said Michelle. “It was very intense and a quick airplane load, but I loved it.”
UPS leases Atlas 747s to assist with the influx of packages during Peak at IAH, and Atlas is very involved in supporting the operation. It was there that Michelle was first introduced to Atlas and met her future coworkers, including Erik Alba (Senior Manager, Ground Ops Standards and Procedures); Bernie Camino (Ground Ops Procedures Specialist); Marcelo Solis (Ground Ops Procedures Specialist) and Henry Beaumont (Senior Manager, Special Cargo and Load Control).
After three years with UPS, Michelle was ready to grow her career. She saw an open position at Atlas for a Lead Passenger Service Representative (PSR) based in Houston and reached out to Erik.
“When I called Erik, he happened to be at a Ground Ops conference and was sitting next to the hiring manager,” said Michelle. “I sent in my resume, and the rest is history.”
In April 2018, Michelle took the Lead Passenger Service Representative (PSR) Role with Atlas, a position she held for about a year. She was then promoted to Ground Ops Training Instructor focusing on the passenger side.
“Michelle is a rising star in Ground Operations. She has the unique ability to bring people together within our group and also connect with the other groups, it really exciting to have her as part of the Atlas Team,” said Bob Kiss, Senior Vice President, Ground Ops.
Working in Ground Ops, Michelle is outnumbered by men, but it’s something that has never stopped her.
“I have never been hindered as a woman in aviation,” says Michelle. “I work with so many people across the company, and there is such a supportive culture. I have never felt that being a woman has prevented my career trajectory in any way at Atlas.”
The tradition of aviation in Michelle’s family just may continue with the next generation as she shares her love for the industry with her son and, perhaps one day, with her newborn daughter Aurora, who was born in February. Enzo has visited her during Peak season at IAH, where she works every year as Loadmaster, a role she very much enjoys.
“Enzo has gotten to visit over the years, and the pilots let him come up to the cockpit and give him a tour of the plane,” said Michelle. “Even though Peak is very busy and challenging, I love doing it. I get to work with a team and enjoy the camaraderie.”
Michelle has some advice for women who may be interested in aviation: Don’t hesitate.
“No one should hold back on going into a career in aviation,” said Michelle. “If you have the drive and the desire, you can go far.”