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Behind The Wings: “A Family Affair: Spreading love for people through aviation”

A common fascination for planes birthed a family to become fully immersed in aviation with Piedmont Airlines.

Melissa Mills was born in Guam and raised in Hawaii. Melissa discovered her fascination with planes while her father was a Chief in the Navy. “My dad being in the service and growing up around planes really caught my eye growing up,” she recalls. Melissa had no idea how much she already had in common with her soon-to-be husband, James, at such a young age.

James Lee Mills is from Tucson, Arizona but was raised in California. James realized his love for planes from his father as well as a retired member of the Air Force. “My dad fought in the German War, Vietnam War and Korean War,” shares James. “I grew up close to the boneyard in Tucson where all the old planes that needed to come in and be fixed were stationed.” The Davis-Monthan Air Force Boneyard is a storage location for retired military aircrafts after World War II and continues through this day. It has evolved into the largest aircraft boneyard in the world.

Nearly two decades ago, Melissa and James met in 2000 and have been together ever since. The two share eight children, three of which are Piedmont employees. That number is expected to grow to four with their youngest daughter Jaleesa next year once she turns 18.

Love brought these two together, but aviation is one of the things that keeps their bond stronger than ever. “My oldest son Lucas was the first of the Mills to start working with Piedmont,” said Melissa. “We were able to use his flight benefits to travel because flying a family of six was expensive. After 19 years of not being able to go back home to Hawaii we decided the time was now.” As Melissa waited in line for their flight, she looked around at all the people in the airport and said to James, “You never know what occasion someone is flying for. It could be for a funeral or a vacation. You can hide so much behind a smile, you never know what someone is going through,” she reflected.  This moment encouraged her to go back to school to get her diploma and apply for a job.

Melissa and James both took a job with Worldwide flight service shortly after. Melissa started out as a ticket agent and James was a ramp agent. Melissa’s sisters followed her and applied along with her two older sons making it a family affair.

“A temporary duty service (TDY) position opened after I had been with the company for three months in Asheville, North Carolina. A three-week job opportunity for James and I turned into three months,” said Melissa. An offer to become a supervisor opened following their outstanding performance. James stayed in Asheville for three years, and Melissa stayed for two years. “Once COVID hit we were furloughed, and our love to work with a go-go-go mentality was put on pause,” shared James. Sitting at home was hard for us. “When things opened back up, I saw an opening as a ramp agent for Piedmont in Arizona,” said Melissa.  A 29-hour drive was the only thing in the way of Melissa getting this position. “My son Jalyeo and I took the car to be prepared in case I got hired on the spot in September 2020.” Melissa got the job and flew her son back home without flight benefits and started as soon as possible.

Melissa traveled back and forth to Asheville every time she had a day off over the course of a year.  “I would grind all week working 13-hour shifts, then jump on the red-eye to be home with my family in Asheville for a day and a half before going to work in Arizona,” said Melissa. “The culture at Piedmont is great and so family oriented.”

One of their daughters, Jalyah followed in her mothers’ footsteps the summer after her high school graduation. “My mom is a mover that loves aviation so when she got the chance to come back to Arizona she jumped at the opportunity,” shared Jalyah. “I applied for a position with Piedmont and took a night shift while my mom was working mornings. When I first started, I was shy and wasn’t as outgoing as the rest of my family. Once I began meeting so many people, I ended up falling in love with my job,” said Jalyah. “I was so happy to wake up every morning and come to work because of the atmosphere and the love at the workplace.”

James and their son Jalyeo soon joined the rest of the family in Arizona as ramp agents. “When we came to the ramp, we created a family outside of our blood family. We had people we molded with and worked well with,” shared James. “We help each other out on gates when help is needed even if it’s not our gate. It’s gotten to a point where colleagues my age will come over to our house,” said Jalyeo. Jalyah echoed the sentiments of her brother sharing “We as a family can’t stand by and see someone struggling and not help. If any team member fails, we all fail because we are a unit.”

The Mills family has been recognized by their peers and leaders for their hard work and dedication. The accolades are nice, they say, but doing the work is what keeps this family happy. “I’m average, I’m just like everyone else out there on the ramp. When leaders and management notice our hard work and want us to elevate our roles, we know we are equal and no better than anyone else. We just love what we do,” shared James.

Loving what you do while caring for others is a big message that has been instilled in the Mills Family household, similar to Piedmont’s mission of caring for people on life’s journey. Respect and face to face dialogue are a key component to connecting with employees and customers daily. Their children share the positive outlook this has had on them growing up.

“Being in a big household, my parents always allowed us to be who we were with endless support,” said Jalyah. Coworkers began to ask if working with family could become too much quality time. “No, I absolutely love my family and my home dynamic. Following our parents in their footsteps that they guided us in is setting us up in life. I cherish these moments with them,” shared Jalyeo.

The Mills Family started a new tradition of blessing others in need with recycled resources. “Family dinner is big to us which led us to start “Mills Love Holidays,” said Melissa. Before COVID, Piedmont’s parent company, American Airlines would give out blankets to customers over the holidays and whatever was left would be thrown away. “Our son Lucas would bring home the unused blankets before being thrown away in trash bags to be washed and given out to those in need on Christmas Eve. “We dedicated our time to make hotdogs and buy water bottles to distribute to the homeless in the area alongside the blankets,” shared Melissa. “One time as we were passing out supplies, I came across a woman that was barefoot, so I took the shoes off of my fiancé’s feet and put them on the lady,” said Jalyeo. “Who would’ve thought blankets being discarded would be a blessing for so many others,” James shared.

The success of helping the homeless inspired the Mills Family’s wildly important goal as Piedmont’s ground handling stations prepare for spring and summer travel. “We would love to visit other stations and work, let others see what we love to do,” shared Melissa. The family looks forward to implementing their goal of “The Summer Mills Team,” which will allow them to travel to other stations to show their colleagues how to operate in love with safety as the top priority. “Spreading our love for people through aviation is a win in our book!”

Behind the Wings is a Piedmont feature that highlights the accomplishments of the aviation professionals who make us Piedmont Proud inside and outside the airport. Piedmont is proud to recognize team members who contribute to the success of the airline and make a difference in their communities.