Flying Colors

As vice president of airport services at  American Airline’s Miami hub, Marilyn Cox Devoe ’77 is responsible for all airport operations. “My goal is to make the customer experience as best as it can be,” Devoe commented soon after joining the Miami team from Dallas, where she served as vice president of the Dallas-Fort Worth hub.

That is no small feat given that Miami is the airline’s largest international hub and its gateway to Latin America and the Caribbean. “The majority of customers in Miami aren’t on business,” Devoe remarked. “They’re traveling with family and friends and are often traveling internationally, which has its own set of complexities like customs and border protection laws and required forms.” Adding to the challenge are language barriers and the ongoing construction at Miami International Airport.

“When I joined, I was looking for a position that would enable me to use my finance background. I interviewed with American and thought ‘this sounds like fun for a few years.’ The irony is that I’d never flown. My father was a plumber, and my mother was a housewife. When we vacationed, we drove.”

Though enhancing customer service in this environment is a daunting task, Devoe, with more than three decades of experience at American, embraced the opportunity: “I focused on the employees—being out there and meeting them face-to-face and building relationships. They’re the ones handling the day-to-day customer issues. It’s important that we’re all equally committed to the same goal.”

Devoe’s approach proved to be successful. In August 2010, American’s Miami hub was honored for improved customer service. For their efforts, employees received the Customer Cup, an American Airlines award that recognizes customer service performance across various customer touch points, such as gate interaction and baggage handling.

Devoe enthuses about her “great group of employees who truly love what they do” and is equally animated about all of the opportunities afforded her throughout her tenure. “I’ve had the ability to move about and had different careers in one company—that is exciting.”

She has managed cargo at John F. Kennedy (JFK) International Airport, where American handles more than a million pounds of freight daily. As manager of flight services when American launched its service to Europe, Devoe oversaw the growth of the flight attendant base from 800 people to over 1,600 in three months. And she accomplished this within strict time constraints.

While she has held many operations positions, Devoe began her career at American’s headquarters in finance: “When I joined, I was looking for a position that would enable me to use my finance background. I interviewed with American and thought ‘this sounds like fun for a few years.’ The irony is that I’d never flown. My father was a plumber, and my mother was a housewife. When we vacationed, we drove.”

Her finance degree and her ambition served her well. After two years, she took a position in the budgeting department, establishing the framework for spending at LaGuardia Airport: “I knew I could do it and convinced the hiring manager to give me the job, but did I have a lot to learn! After working all day, I’d go into the terminal at night to truly understand what happened there every day. I knew I would not understand it sitting at a desk.”

Devoe believes that her willingness to go the extra mile has driven her career advancement, and she often shares this philosophy and her experiences with colleagues. In her closing remarks at a Women in Aviation Conference in March 2010, she stated: “Top performers consistently work harder than the average person; in other words, they work hard and then some. ‘And then some’ is the real key. It’s one of the most important factors to achieving success.”

Consistently, Devoe excelled in every position she has held by “working hard and then some.” She cites a particularly challenging time when, as regional managing director of the West, overseeing airports in 18 cities in Arizona, California, Hawaii, Nevada, Oregon, and Washington, she was involved in the American-TWA integration.

In addition to her demanding day job, Devoe worked well into the night learning about TWA’s policies and procedures. In order to blend the two organizations effectively, she had to identify each airline’s best practices and ensure they became the standard for the newly combined carrier. The pace she maintained in carrying out these responsibilities was frenetic: “We were merging in a post-9/11 environment that made the situation a more monumental task. I don’t remember that two-year period.”

Expert leadership has complemented Devoe’s inherent talent and the unparalleled work ethic that guided her through these taxing situations. For more than a decade, she worked under the direction of AA Chairman and CEO Bob Crandall ’57. “He’s a brilliant man and a tremendous leader. He is someone you can learn a lot from and also someone who demands the best from you. Everyone performed at peak working for Mr. Crandall. If he asked you a question, you never guessed or made an assumption because he would see right through it. If you had a meeting with him, you were sure to be prepared for anything he might ask—you were always on your toes.”

Devoe shares Crandall’s passion for the airline. After 30 years, she maintains the same level of excitement that she had as a new hire in finance: “When I observe the ticket agents, I’m still amazed by all of the intricacies involved in their jobs—especially at international hubs where they must memorize all the different documents and visa formats.”

Just as her enthusiasm for American has never waned, Devoe also possesses a great fondness for the University: “I loved my time at URI and feel that URI prepared me for a terrific future.” To help current students realize similar success, Devoe serves on the College of Business Administration’s Advisory Council. Members participate in the strategic view of the college’s mission and offer guidance to the dean, whom she holds in high regard. “Dean Mark Higgins has student interests at heart and is working to make the college a better place. The recent accreditation is a testament to his hard work.”

Whether optimizing the flying experience for travelers or helping to ensure that the College of Business Administration is preparing its students for great careers, Devoe excels in everything she does. Rather than cruise uneventfully at altitude, she moves ahead at full bore and lands smoothly.

By Maria V. Caliri ’86, M.B.A. ’92