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By Elizabeth Exline
Much is made nowadays of the importance of being a team player. But for University of Phoenix (UOPX) alumnus Johnny Ortega, being part of a team is more than a talking point for his resumé. It’s both a worldview and a way of life.
As the youngest of eight children, Ortega learned early on the value of working together.
As a human being, Ortega believes volunteering can lift all boats, whether he’s mentoring local children or joining an outreach project in Mexico. And, as the Delta Air Lines station manager at John Wayne Santa Ana Airport, he knows he’s only as good as his team.
“I think of sports and of trying to build a team that’s going to be successful,” Ortega says of his management approach. “Of working cohesively for the better good and to provide the best product possible. I’m always very competitive to make sure that I have the right pieces in the right places to do the job and … be successful. And motivating people is what really makes me happy.”
Considering his outlook, it’s only fitting that Ortega has found a professional home at Delta Air Lines, where he says the company culture is one of mutual support. Today, Ortega oversees a team of 46 people and operates 13 mainline flights.
But 15 years ago, he was working the baggage ramps at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX).
“I was doing all the dirty work,” he recalls with a laugh, “getting on my knees and loading all the bags inside the aircraft.”
So, how does one go from working baggage to overseeing an airport? In Ortega’s case, the answer has three parts: teamwork, determination and education.
Ortega started out with very different career goals. As a high school graduate, he matriculated to a California university where he began an engineering degree. But he realized that the demands of engineering research, which might take him away from his family for long periods, weren’t for him. He ended up transferring universities and degree programs, choosing to study psychology instead.
“I wanted to do something more along the lines of just trying to grow, to learn. I want to learn people,” he says.
Ortega’s educational career, however, was cut short when his mother fell ill with dementia. His brothers and sisters had all moved away by that point, and so Ortega stepped away from school to work and take care of her.
“Going to school was something I couldn’t do at that time,” he says. “Not having a father around, [it was important] for me to make sure she had support.”
Being part of a team, after all, sometimes requires personal sacrifice.
Ortega began working at LAX, gradually moving up the ladder within Delta Air Lines and meeting people along the way who would change his life. One of these was his department manager at LAX, a mentor who encouraged Ortega to go back to school and to pursue the Delta Award for Excellence scholarship to pay for it.
Applying for the scholarship boiled down to sharing both Ortega’s story and his goals (at the time, Ortega’s goal was to become a station manager). What’s more, his mentor was willing to adjust Ortega’s schedule so he could juggle school, work and family responsibilities.
“That was something that I’m very grateful to Delta for — allowing me to have that flexibility to pursue my degree while also making sure that I had the financial funds to be able to attend school,” Ortega says.
Although nearly 10 years had elapsed between stepping away from his degree and going back to college, Ortega never lost sight of the importance of education. A degree was integral to enhancing his career, he says. Education overall is also critical for the bigger picture, in Ortega’s view.
Ortega explains: “Coming from a low-income family, there’s a lot of burden as far as what your limitations are, and I wanted to get out of that stigma as far as setting myself up for success. … I think education is one of the biggest [factors impacting your ability] to excel.”
Sometimes going to school is easier as a group. Read how three best friends earned their doctorates together.
Ortega decided to attend UOPX largely because of its flexibility and its degree programs. The Bachelor of Science in Industrial-Organizational Psychology spoke to his passion for understanding what makes people tick, and the program opened his eyes to processes and protocols he’d experienced but hadn’t formally learned about.
“Some of the leadership classes in there worked hand in hand with work,” he observes.
“So, I was like, ‘Oh, there’s an actual format! There are actually different styles of methods!’” Ortega says, chuckling.
UOPX’s transfer credit policy also worked for Ortega, who was able to transfer more than 60 of his existing college credits toward his bachelor’s degree.
As he dug into his coursework, Ortega found the online format both intuitive and convenient. “Having the flexibility to do online schooling was amazing,” he says. Going from the traditional model of in-person classes, commutes and set schedules to “having everything in the palm of your hand” was a game changer.
“Delta does offer different schooling that gives different things,” Ortega adds, “but I think University of Phoenix fit my lifestyle, my flexibility.”
And Delta’s Award for Excellence scholarship helped make it possible. Ortega estimates the scholarship paid for about 25% of his degree, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. Ortega was going back to school just as the pandemic struck, and all Delta employees took pay cuts to weather the downturn in business.
“Obviously education is not free, and I think what Delta has done for me, whether it’s my career or helping me with my education, it’s been a blessing,” Ortega says.
As a result, Ortega earned his bachelor’s degree in two years and graduated in July 2021—and made the dean’s list.
Today, Ortega implements his knowledge on a daily basis. What he’s learned has made him a more effective manager, he says, because he can “understand where people are at and … motivate people to change for the better.”
Ortega’s role as station manager is multifaceted. He is responsible for managing vendor relationships, customer satisfaction, staffing and budgets, among other things. It’s a position that speaks to his love of teamwork.
“Sometimes you have to be a therapist here, and sometimes you have to be a coach, and sometimes you have to be a referee,” he says with a smile.
Ortega seems to do it well: His team is currently leading the region for customer satisfaction. “I take that as a compliment to myself and my team because I’ve tried to build a foundation here where the team trusts me to give them support and make the changes we need to improve customer satisfaction.”
When Ortega isn’t at the airport or with his family, you might find him working within the community: He partnered with his local Boys & Girls Club for four years, and he’s joined outreach programs through Delta Air Lines to support educational initiatives in Mexico. Beyond that, who knows? You might even find him in the classroom again at some point.
“My short-term goal was to become a station manager,” he says, “and I’m there now. My next goal is to continue growing and learning, and I think getting my master’s will allow me to get to that next level. I want to become VP of Delta Air Lines at one point. That’s something that I really want to strive to get to, and I think having that educational background, that’s something that’s going to help me get there.”
It’s a message he shares with anyone who will listen, from his brother who never completed his degree to his nieces and nephews, friends and mentees. “People have their limitations,” Ortega points out. “They see the world from one perspective, but once you get out into the real world, there’s more to it.”
Expanding that perspective is worth the effort, in Ortega’s view. It not only makes for a more enlightened individual, but it makes the whole team — whether at work or in the world at large — stronger.
“I’m not going to say it was easy,” Ortega says, “because it wasn’t always easy. But I’m glad there’s a different platform for people who have a busy work-home life to have an opportunity to pursue a higher education. I think it’s a key necessity in order for us to get better as a society.”
Delta leverages University of Phoenix to make education and skills enhancement more affordable for employees. Learn more about Delta tuition benefits.
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