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Rita Cuddihy

Rita Cuddihy

1976, Aviation Management  

Taking Flight
Alumna shattered the glass ceiling in her meteoric rise.


You’ve heard about the glass ceiling for women – the metaphorical barricade that keeps women from rising to the upper echelons of the business world.

Apparently Rita Cuddihy missed that memo.

Her rise in the male-dominated industry of aviation has been nothing short of meteoric.

And it didn’t matter to her that few women were in aviation back in the 1970s when she set her sights on a career in the skies — she was going to follow her dreams, period.

To get off the ground, she chose MSU Denver in 1972. She was the only woman of 13 students who came to the school from New York (she grew up in Staten Island and as a child loved watching planes circling around JFK and LaGuardia.)

“It was the perfect option for me, affordable, diverse — they even had a female professor in aviation management."

When asked what she misses most about her days at MSU Denver, she quips, “My youth!” Then she laughs and says, “I miss running around town. I had a good time. The school gave me a solid foundation and put me on the right course.” 

After graduating magna cum laude, Cuddihy started out in 1977 as a ticket counter rep with a small outfit in Denver called Pioneer Airways. By the time she left in 1980, she was vice president for operations and marketing.

For the next 21 years she held several executive-level positions with Continental, Braniff, Frontier Horizon and Texas American Airlines. Then in 1998 Cuddihy was named CEO of US Airways – the world’s first female president in the aviation industry.

She retired from the airlines industry in 2001, and after a year of retirement, she decided to reenter the business world. “I knew I was done with airlines, but I wanted to stay in the service industry and work for a company whose mission was built around service.”

That’s when the hotel and hospitality giant, Marriott International Inc., came calling. Again, she rose rapidly through the ranks and today serves as a senior vice president and heads all facets of operations and marketing.

Stephen Jordan, MSU Denver president, says Cuddihy is full of “grit, focus and resolve.”

Cuddihy says her secret to success is this: “Hard work. I learned to apply what I knew and figured it out as I went along. There was a lot of trial and error, but I just kept working hard to do what needed to be done.” 

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