In continuation of Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) month, PHL recognizes the contributions of AAPI leaders at the airport. American Airlines Managing Director of Customer Operations, Yu Lee identifies as Korean American. Within her role, Lee oversees 1,400 ramp, baggage claim, and catering facility employees.
Lee recalls her childhood and her family’s humble beginnings. When they emigrated to the United States from South Korea in 1980, her father only had $200 to his name. Her family provided her with strong values - hard work, honorifics with elders, and pride in their culture. Lee’s mother was the first person who spoke to her about the importance of diversity due to the adversity she faced when she first came to the United States.
“This month is about appreciating my culture and other AAPI identities,” said Lee. “It’s about extending a hand to another minority woman to help them get through this journey.”
Lee is excited to see South Korean culture become mainstream in America through food, entertainment, and technology. She never thought she’d see kimchi in her local grocery store or that BTS and Korean TV shows would become so popular.
While studying to become a physical therapist, Lee took a break from college to travel the U.S. She began working for an airline in 1999 and joined American in 2000.
Traveling with a coworker to France is the experience that solidified Lee’s love for the airline industry.
“The friendships that come with this experience are the most important,” said Lee. “Being in this industry for 22-years now, I always say I have friends sprinkled all over this world.”
Managers within Lee’s team are required to either sponsor or join one of the more than 20 American Airlines Employee Business Resource Groups which celebrate employee diversity, equity and inclusion.
“We are the largest carrier in the world,” said Lee. “It’s important that my team resembles the team that we’re leading. It brings different thoughts and creativity to the table. It pushes all of us to think differently which is important as we’re leading the next generation of leaders.”
Lee finds it gratifying to contribute to building American Airlines’ structure while accomplishing company goals. “Our job is so rewarding because were able to execute our plans and see our employees be very successful at it,” she said.
Early on in her career, Lee found mentorship from a former boss. “I look up to my mentor, American Airlines Senior Manager of Safety and Operation Excellence Mitchell Wagner, who is of Pacific Islander descent,” said Lee. “He taught me a lot about understanding and responsibility when working with employees. He emphasized treating employees like family.”
As a bilingual speaker, Lee was able to assist an elderly Korean woman who missed her flight. Although the flight was with another airline, Lee was able to help the woman re-book her flight. “Her daughter called to thank me because she wasn’t sure what would’ve happened to her if I wasn’t there,” said Lee. “I would’ve done that for anyone, it just so happened to be that she was also Korean.”
To Lee, AAPI month is more than recognition, it’s also about history.
“In this month we have the opportunity to educate people,” said Lee. “Asian Americans have been migrating to U.S. early on in American history. We’re not perpetual foreigners. We helped build North America. Having the opportunity to share this history is fantastic – that’s what makes America so great. It’s the land of opportunity, diversity and that makes us resilient. It’s a melting pot.”