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Heath Montgomery, '05, smiles in front of an aircraft.

Such Great Heights: UNC Alumni Working in Aviation

The sky’s the limit when it comes to where a UNC education can take you, just ask Heath Montgomery, ’05, and Leah Schultz, ’17.

Across majors and class years, UNC alumni continue to reach new heights in their education. Aviation permeates many aspects of our lives; we all have a fascination or story that involves an airport. In travel hubs across the country, UNC alumni work to create the best experiences for the millions of visitors who pass through every year.  

Heath Montgomery, ’05, vice president of communications and marketing at Dallas Fort Worth Airport (DFW) has spent the past decade growing in his career in aviation.  

Born and raised in Colorado, Montgomery enrolled at UNC to pursue his passions, earning degrees in Journalism and Political Science. He worked at the student newspaper, The Mirror, all four years and became the editor his final year. Throughout his college experience he pursued internships and jobs at publications like the Denver Post as their after-hours intern. After graduation, Montgomery went into political and community reporting at The Colorado Statesmen, the Columbine Courier and The Boulder Daily Camera. 

From his decade of experience in journalism, he transitioned into working in public relations using the skills he honed reporting in the field – including writing, people skills and translating complex topics into understandable communications. That move soon led him to his first role in aviation at Denver International Airport (DEN) where he fell in love with the industry. 

“It's the famous Richard Branson quote, ‘If somebody offers you an amazing opportunity but you are not sure you can do it, say yes – then learn how to do it later.’ It's such real advice because at every step of my career I wasn't sure if I could do that next thing until I said yes and believed that I could.” 

— Heath Montgomery

If you’re familiar with the myths and conspiracy theories circulating about the airport, like the supposed underground lizard people who live there, or the lore surrounding the 32-foot-tall sculpture of a rearing blue mustang that greets you as you drive to the airport, dubbed “Blucifer” by Coloradans and “Mustang” by its creator, you have Montgomery to thank – at least in part.  

“I ended up running the Denver International Airport social media channels, so I really rebuilt that program almost from scratch. It was sort of when Twitter was taking off as a public way of communicating with the press and media was just starting to use it that way ... I hope that I brought a lot of fun to the airport ... while I didn't start the conspiracy theories; I started the idea of leaning into them as a marketing mechanism,” said Montgomery.

Leaning into the conspiracies generated public intrigue and dialogue about DEN, leading Montgomery to be featured on the Discovery Channel, The History Channel, national news, local news, and even a front-page story by the Denver Post on the conspiracies at DEN. 

After his time at DEN, Montgomery moved to California for a career opportunity his wife was pursuing and settled himself in to work at a San Diego-based technology company. However, he found himself missing aviation. So, when the opportunity became available at Los Angeles International Airport (LAX), he jumped at the chance to return to his new career field of choice.

After four years with LAX, communicating about airport emergencies, construction projects, new routes and much more, Montgomery had another opportunity to elevate his career through a vice president role at DFW.

Today, Montgomery has worked at DFW – his third large U.S. airport – for just over a year, overseeing 40 individuals across marketing, communications, community engagement, government relations and managing multimillion-dollar budgets for those departments. He oversees everything from the airport’s brand, including this year’s 50th anniversary of the airport, as well as how DFW communicates with the media and public during a crisis response, and more. This is no small feat considering DFW is one of the busiest and largest airports in the world, operating more like a small city complete with its own police, fire, security, operations, maintenance and other departments — it even has its own zip code and is larger than the island of Manhattan. 

Never imagining he would work in aviation, the advice he gives to those considering the field is simple: 

“It's the famous Richard Branson quote, ‘If somebody offers you an amazing opportunity but you are not sure you can do it, say yes – then learn how to do it later.’ It's such real advice because at every step of my career I wasn't sure if I could do that next thing until I said yes and believed that I could.” 

Every step of Montgomery’s career path has been unexpected even to him. Yet he’s happy he took the sometimes scary and hard steps that allowed him to grow into the industry leader he is now. 

Leah Schultz smiling.

Leah Schultz

Leah Schultz, ’17, is another alum who never expected to work in aviation, in fact, she hadn’t anticipated going to college either.

“I chose UNC because I did a campus tour when I was looking. Quite honestly, I wasn't really looking at going to college ... It was my mom who encouraged me to apply, she told me to just take a tour [of UNC]. So, I did the tour and I really enjoyed it: the campus, meeting everybody.”

Attending for degrees in Communication, and Recreation, Tourism and Hospitality, Schultz enjoyed her time on campus. Making the most of her experience, she participated in the National Student Exchange going to the University of New Orleans for a semester her junior year. Then, through a global communication course, she went to Barcelona for three weeks in the summer. Although aviation was not on her radar at the time, travel was a recurring theme throughout her time at UNC. 

Starting her career as a food and beverage manager on riverboat cruises, Schultz then transitioned to working in hotels. After working in hospitality for a few years, she returned to Greeley to become an admissions counselor at UNC in the Denver area throughout the pandemic. After working at her alma mater for a time, Schultz changed industries into recruiting where she found a home working as a recruiter in pilot hiring with United Airlines. 

“I realize now, I have used my degree in every single field [I’ve worked in] and I've worked —funny enough — in three different areas of tourism: land, sea and air,” said Schultz. 

What Schultz enjoys about recruiting is finding hires that are a perfect fit for United and those who feel United is a perfect fit for them. Her background in customer service-oriented roles made her a great fit because it demonstrated her strength in talking to people and being in a forward-facing role. Last year, Schultz helped hire over 2,300 pilots, making her previous experience a vital skill. 

Schultz works with a lot of pilots, so she gets asked often if she ever thought of becoming one. Having gone on a discovery flight to see if she liked being up in the air and flying an aircraft, Schultz quickly realized that becoming a pilot was not in the cards for her. 

 “It was turbulent, it was bumpy, I just did not have a good time ... I know that if I wanted to become a pilot, I would have to quit my job and do it full time in order to get my body used to it. I think I’ll just stick to hiring pilots instead,” said Schultz. 

Both Montgomery and Schultz used their UNC degrees as valuable tools throughout their careers. With Montgomery’s start in journalism and Schultz’s in hospitality, their different starts ultimately led them to different roles in the expansive aviation industry. In the end, they both landed smoothly into a field they see themselves working in long-term. 

To explore the other industries of employment among UNC alumni, visit the UNC alumni employment dashboard available at unco.edu/bears-go-big.

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