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Work Hard, Play Hard:
Fluent Japanese Speaker Charles M. Duncan

Does speaking the Japanese language help your business career? Charles M. Duncan, Vice President O’Hare Hub of United Airlines, appears everywhere in the airport and greets Japanese tour groups with his fluent Japanese.
He was promoted as President of Continental Micronesia in 2009 when he was only 35 years old, and his previous title was Managing Director of Continental Airlines Japan. After the merger between United and Continental, he was further promoted as the top of United at O’Hare Hub. He is now 40 years old.

Duncan was born in 1974 in Virginia. He joined Continental Airlines in Houston in 1996 after graduating from the University of North Carolina, and was transferred to its Tokyo office in 1998.

At the beginning in Tokyo, he was a ball of nerves. Although there were many attractive restaurants in his residence area of Shimokitazawa, he could only go to American fast food restaurants for two months because he didn’t know how to order food. From restaurants to cleaners, everything had to be done in Japanese.
His company offered a Japanese language class during a lunch break for one hour, twice a week, and the class was the first experience for him to study Japanese. The text book was “Japanese for busy people.”
He also met his future wife, who was very good at English. Dating her spurred him to study Japanese more.
He attended Harvard Business School in 2001 and returned to Tokyo in July 2002. He married in the same month.

During the time of his 10-year-stay in Tokyo, Duncan frequently visited his customers, such as travel agencies. Especially as head of Continental in Japan, he traveled throughout Japan from Fukuoka to Sapporo every week to visit his customers. That is why he quickly recognizes the tour badges on the chest of Japanese tour groups at O’Hare, and he can greet them to make them comfortable.

In 2009, he was transferred to Guam to become President of Continental Micronesia where he oversaw 1,200 employees. About 900,000 Japanese tourists visit Guam every year, and 4,000 to 5,000 Japanese reside in Guam. Needless to say, his Japanese language skills helped his jobs.

In March 2012, Duncan moved to Chicago O’Hare, the biggest hub of United Airlines, with a total of 9,500 employees. On a peak day, United has over 670 departures and about 55,000 customers. The checking in at the lobby starts at 3 a.m., the first plane departs at 5 a.m. and the last flight lands at about 2 a.m. It is really a 24-hour operation.
This winter was especially terrible, and everyone worked very hard. Duncan said, “When we see weather, of course we want to operate flights. If we know we are going to have cancellations, we’d like to cancel one day in advance. In that way we can e-mail people, we can call them, so they don’t have to sleep here in the airport. If we cancel a day before, they know about the departure delays, or can rebook another way. I think that it makes it a lot better.”
During the severe weather, the most difficult thing is getting information about possible departure times, which his costumers are eager to know. He said, “We don’t always have the information. That’s frustrating for us, too.”

United gives a survey to its customers every day and receives thousands of replies. Duncan reads 70-page-long replies from customers every Sunday night at home. He said that 70 % of them were positive, such as thanks for on-time flight and friendly service.

Duncan said that on-time flights were tremendously improved since the new south runway opened last October.
According to him, the wind is east or west about 97 % of the time, so the parallel runways work very well. The challenge is the other 3 % of the time when the wind comes north or south, clearing snow, and deicing airplanes. United will purchase more trucks to work on the last two.
Regarding the noise of the east and west side of O’Hare, he showed a report dated January 2014, which was provided by the Chicago Department of Aviation. He attends monthly meetings with the city officials and mayors from suburbs.
According to the report, for example, the noise in Park Ridge was reduced to 56.3 decibels from 61.8 decibels in 2000, when the two new parallel runways at north and south were not available. He said, “In general, engines are getting quieter. We also have a special program at night to avoid populated areas, and it is quieter now. We do our part and really try as hard as we can to be quiet.”

United has launched a joint venture with All Nippon Airways that makes three flights a day, 10 a.m., 1 p.m., and 5 p.m., and all are available to Narita from Chicago.
Duncan said, “Japan is an incredibly important market for us. We are always thinking how we can improve service for Japanese customers.” There are also Japanese customers, who make connections all over the U.S.; therefore, on-time operation has become much more important.
To offer better service, United hired many foreign language speakers including Japanese speakers, “It’s not difficult to find Japanese speakers to offer assistance,” said Duncan, who often worked on such assistance.

Beside the Japanese language skills, his key to making a successful career is “Work hard, play hard.”
When he was in Japan, he went to Niseko ski resort in Hokkaido frequently with his team members. He said the snow in Niseko is the best in the world.
He celebrated his 40th birthday in early March at Niseko. About 40 colleagues from Europe, Guam, China, Japan, and Chicago got together and had a fun time. It was only a two-day trip to Hokkaido and a tough schedule for him, but he said that such a meeting gave him more energy to focus on work at the airport.