Olympia Colasante first came to Philadelphia 25 years ago as a shift manager for US Airways, working on the ramp, at the ticket counter, and at gates.
Now she's back as vice president in charge of American Airlines' hub at Philadelphia International Airport.
As the boss, she is responsible for 8,400 American employees based at PHL, making sure that 390 flights a day get out on time, and overseeing functions such as airline catering, cargo handling, and aircraft maintenance.
Colasante, who is the first woman to run American and predecessor US Airways' Philadelphia hub, arrived at PHL in August. She said she was still getting to know everyone.
Asked what her goals are at PHL, she quickly named two.
She will lead, with 14 other airlines and the city-owned airport, a $900 million capital improvement plan. It will be American's single largest investment at PHL ever, she said.
Colasante also said she wants PHL to be "a great place for employees to work" because happy employees, in turn, will make for happier customers. "I want to get our airplanes out on time, with happy customers and all the bags in cargo that belong on the flight, safely and securely," she said. "Not that we are not doing that today, but I want to take it to another level."
Colasante's last job was managing director of American's operation at London Heathrow Airport, which is American's largest international operation.
She began her aviation career more than 30 years ago in her native Canada, working for Wardair, First Air, and Canadian Airlines. She joined US Airways as a supervisor in Ottawa in 1990. She later ran US Airways' Boston-New York-Washington shuttle and had a number of other positions with the airline.
When she arrived in Philadelphia in August, work had already begun on $395.9 million in infrastructure improvements at PHL — replacing roofs, elevators, escalators, and HVAC units; installing a new aircraft deicing operation; and providing security and technology upgrades.
The most visible change will come in several years, when the airlines in tandem with the airport plan to build a "head house," a new front entrance at the airport, to replace the Terminals B and C ticketing areas with automated baggage handling and a centralized passenger security checkpoint.
"This is a big project, and it's very exciting," Colasante said. "The plans for it exactly coming to fruition are still in the initial phases. I will participate in a lot of those plans."
A new B-C arrivals building will be located between Terminal A-East and Terminal B on what is currently mostly open space. Airlines have said the project will be completed in five to seven years, with a total price tag of $900 million.
"It's been talked about for years, but it's finally going to happen," Colasante said. "The money has been sourced."
Since the merger, the new American has tweaked some routes and trimmed capacity in Philadelphia, reducing the number of total flights from about 430 a day to 390 now.
Before the merger, US Airways had four airport hubs while American had five.
"That meant we had a networking strategy to figure out," Colasante said. "Because not all hubs can be everything. That led to some changes in the schedule. We now have our scheduling pretty well figured out. We have defined Philly as the transatlantic gateway. That's why we are adding three new flights next year to Prague, Budapest, and Zurich."
"American Airlines is committed to Philadelphia, and we're committed very strongly for the transatlantic opportunity," she said. "Philadelphia is probably the best place to fit our operation to London."
American has revenue-sharing connections with British Airways in the Oneworld global airline alliance and through a joint business agreement with British Airways.
"I think American and Philly are in a good place," Colasante said. "We only have a good future ahead of us."