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
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
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
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.