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Gaining altitude

New chief of United Continental's Newark hub has high hopes for merger

Torbjorn J. “Toby” Enqvist is the new vice president of United Continental‘s Newark Liberty International Airport hub, but he already knows the facility, having worked on construction plans for it since the late 1990s.

Torbjorn J. “Toby” Enqvist is the new vice president of United Continental‘s Newark Liberty International Airport hub, but he already knows the facility, having worked on construction plans for it since the late 1990s.

“I know the (physical) plant really well because I’ve been part of building it up, including C3,” Enqvist said, referring to the expansion of the Continental terminal. The airline has invested more than $2 billion over the past 12 years in the hub, said the native of Stockholm, Sweden.

As managing director of corporate real estate during the later stages of construction, Enqvist guided the entire Continental team that worked on the expansion, including construction and design workers. The expansion, completed in 2002, included new ticket counters and road ways around the terminal, doubling its size, and a new federal inspection facility.

Now Enqvist, fresh from overseeing security and environmental affairs for the airline, will be focused on the people inside the terminal, both the customers and the employers who serve them, for an airline that just came into existence, with the merger of longtime Newark giant Continental Airlines with the larger United. He will have duties beyond those of his predecessor, Jonathan Roitman, since he also will oversee the airline’s operations at JFK and LaGuardia airports.

“The biggest challenge with this merger is to make (sure) that we make the culture right,” said Enqvist, saying with a commitment to customer service, “everything else will fall into place.” Company executives have cited Continental’s focus on customer service and United’s ability to arrive at destinations on time as strengths they want to preserve in the merge.

Those strengths are of critical importance to area businesses, since the hub’s location and prominence support hotels and other service companies.

“You can’t help but say that this is a major step for New Jersey, the Newark airport and the Newark area,” said Alfred C. Koeppe, chairman of the New Jersey Economic Development Authority. “For the business community in New Jersey — which already has and expects to have more of a global reach — this merged airline, combined with state-of-the-art technology, makes it pretty tough to beat.”

Koeppe said Enqvist has a major legacy to uphold from Roitman, whom he called “one of the unheralded, really strong leaders in the state’s business community,” in particular citing a Roitman-led effort to hire and train residents in Essex and Union counties. Koeppe is encouraged that Enqvist has worked with Roitman.

“I would expect him to be someone who will carry on the quality of the work” that Roitman has set, Koeppe said.

Enqvist said serving high-profit-margin business travelers will be crucial to outcompeting both global and domestic rivals.

“We don’t make much money in the airline industry, but where we make that money is the business traveler,” Enqvist said. He added that those travelers are well-served by an airline that leads in departures and destinations. As a member of the Star Alliance — the world’s largest airline alliance — United Continental gains access to airports around the world; if you can’t reach your destination through Star, “you might want to check if you really need to go to that place,” Enqvist said.

Its Star Alliance membership allows United Continental’s customers to have one ticket and one fare to cities the airline doesn’t directly serve. It also ensures consistency for seat upgrades and baggage fees.

Roitman said improving employee morale was his priority when he arrived in Newark in January 2005 — with regional business customers proving to be some of the highest-yielding in the world, “the last thing you want is employees who aren’t smiling,” said airline spokesman Rahsaan Johnson. And Enqvist said that’s important to him, too.

“We’re still having a lot of momentum with the merger,” Enqvist said. He said there is some frustration that the merger wasn’t completed more quickly, and while there is excitement about it, “we have a lot of work left to do.” The airline will adopt the United Airlines moniker when the merge is complete.

The Newark hub has advantages on the customer service front, including a constantly renewed mix of 96 concessions, staggered to keep the offerings fresh. Enqvist also said United Continental has an advantage in being focused in Newark when compared with Delta, which has more of its operations spread across two airports — JFK and LaGuardia.

Roitman, who was promoted to the airline’s senior vice president for cargo and operations, will now oversee everything each customer experiences — from when the taxi arrives at the curb to when plane is boarded. Roitman, to whom Enqvist will report, said the merger has left the Newark hub well-situated to serve business customers in an economy that has put a pinch on travel.

“As a side product, it helps us generate corporate customers and high-yield type customers, which is important to our strategy,” Roitman said.

Roitman also said Enqvist will be a strong leader in Newark.

“He’s a people person first of all, and he knows what we call the secret sauce: If you take care of employees, then employees are going to take care of customers,” he said.

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