5 fascinating facts about the new United Airlines

This is the emergency operations center at United Airlines’ new headquarters in Chicago’s Willis Tower. Looks like an average conference room, doesn’t it?

But turn around, and you’ll see something unusual: a whiteboard with boxes for flight number, destination, passengers — and casualties.

Airline execs and government representatives meet here when disaster strikes. It was last used during Hurricane Irene, and before that, when US Airways flight 1549 landed in the Hudson River (it was a codeshare flight with United).

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Before then, the emergency ops center sprang into action on Sept. 11, 2001, when United lost two planes in the terrorist attack.

The center has a feature or two you won’t find in the average boardroom, like a secure line to the White House, and, well … I’ve been sworn to secrecy on the others.

I toured United’s new HQ yesterday and learned a few fascinating facts.

Finally, a use for elite-level customers. This is the “bridge” at the new network operations center. The 360 employees on the floor keep the airline running, managing traffic, monitoring weather, and coordinating with airports and the FAA.

Here’s a little-known detail: United uses an algorithm to assign a numeric score to each flight. It’s based on the passenger count, their connections, and how many elite-level frequent fliers are on the plane. The grade determines which flights get priority during weather or air traffic delays, when controllers have to determine which flights are held and which ones get the green light.

Jim DeYoung, the managing director in charge of the ops center, says the score is only a guide, with human controllers making the final call. Still, if your next delayed flight leaves before the rest, you might want to thank those elites sitting up front. They may have had something to do with your less-delayed departure.

The ‘flat tire’ rule lives! United’s senior vice president of customer experience, Martin Hand, confirmed its existence.

If you have a flat tire on your way to the airport, or are otherwise delayed because of circumstances beyond your control, United will let you stand by for the next flight at no extra charge.

That’s right: No change fee, no fare differential. If there’s a free seat on the next flight, you’re flying.

“You have to arrive at the airport within two hours of your scheduled departure time,” Hand told me. If a ticket agent balks, just reference the “flat tire rule” (that’s what it’s called) and yes, it’s a written policy, not something Hand made up during an interview with his favorite consumer advocate.

Economy Plus was almost euthanized. Before the merger between United and Continental, United considered doing away with its premium economy class, which was being given to elite-level customers at no extra charge.

But Maria Walter, the airline’s director of merchandising and revenue optimization, says she and others at United begged for a reprieve. What if she should upsell other economy class passengers into Economy Plus? Would they consider saving it?

A manager gave her team a number (she declines to reveal it) and said if she could sell enough seats, they’d keep E+. She met the goal. “Then they gave me another number,” she says, “And we made that one, too.”

The new United ended up keeping the section, which is a good thing. Economy Plus resembles the pre-deregulation economy class section, with roomier seats and priority service, and we should all be lucky enough to sit there.

United can predict how happy you’ll be with your flight – or not. Managers receive daily customer service scores, but they do more than read them. They’ve mined the data, linking passenger seat records to certain behaviors. For example, they can predict that economy class passengers sitting in middle seats are more likely to gripe about the flying experience, while the ones sitting in the premium seats are less likely to whine.

Ahem. I coulda told you that.

Speaking of complaints, there’s a sense that the fee madness has ended and that a new era of “re-bundling” has begun. In the future, airlines like United will sell tickets that are packaged with onboard Wi-Fi, lounge access and the ability to pay a reduced change fee, in case your plans change, says Scott O’Leary, the managing director of customer solutions.

Yes, flying impairs your tastebuds (but not like you think). Do airlines spice up their meals because you can’t taste anything at altitude? Yes, says Chef Gerry McLoughlin, who is in charge of United’s in-flight meals. But not for the reasons you think. It’s not the altitude that affects your ability to taste, but dehydration.

“You can’t taste as well,” he confirmed. Some passengers drink pleny of water on board, and therefore can taste just fine, so you can’t overspice the food, otherwise they’ll choke on it. Instead, you have to play it right down the middle, using natural ingredients to amp up the flavor.

Do you test new entrees at altitude? I asked. “No,” he laughed. “We don’t have the ability to commandeer a whole plane for that.”

A few other interesting items …

United’s hub-and-spoke elevators. Because of an architectural quirk in the Willis Tower, United employees don’t have direct elevator access between some floors in their new headquarters. Instead, they have to ride one elevator to the ground floor and transfer to another one. Ah, the irony!

Call me, maybe? Super-elites phoning United have their calls answered within 10 seconds. Elites wait about 45 seconds. Regular travelers? About 80 percent of the time, their calls are answered within two minutes. Plus, they have to pay a fee to make a reservation. (I’m not sure if I understand the logic in that, but give me a minute.)

Service culture. About 30 staffers — slightly less than 10 percent of the employees in the new network operations center — are devoted full-time to customer service issues. Among them is a new manager who handles service outages proactively. So the next time your flight is delayed or diverted, and a United employee hands you a hotel voucher and rebooked airline ticket when you arrive instead of making you wait in a long line, you’ll know where to send the flowers.

Many thanks to my friends at United for showing me your new headquarters and answering my nosy questions about customer service.

42 thoughts on “5 fascinating facts about the new United Airlines

  1. So, did they fess up to shifting delays to other flights that are not delayed in order to ‘catch up’ later in the day or to give them to west coast flights to buy the time they gain from flying west for the next day?

  2. They need to make sure “Economy Plus” is actually “Economy Plus.” I’ve been on plenty of metal lately that bills “EP” but the seats are no further apart than the rest of coach.

    SMI/J and pals still have a far to go in my book.

    1. I had a similar incident with United some time ago. I had a flight that was “canceled” because of personal issues (i.e. labor dispute). As a result, they offered us free “upgrades” to first class because of it. When I used this free upgrade, turned out the plane did not have a true first class section. The just called the first 10 rows first class. The seats were just the same as all the other economy class sets, no extra service, and no “curtain” to separate the two sections like you normally see.

      1. United doesn’t have any planes like you’ve described. They have Economy Plus (with extra legroom, but nothing else), but that is never sold as First Class. Their First Class planes have a “true” (by US domestic definitions at least) First Class cabin.

          1. They were probably using an aircraft from TED, United’s ill fated where they tried running a low cost, no frills, single cabin operation. TED’s aircraft were all Boeing 757’s.

          2. When TED aircrafts were done flying “TED” they were all reconfigured with first class, so there is no TED aircraft flying around without them. They are just like any other airbus-it’s only missing the closet up front (only way you know it was a TED plane), and TED aircrafts were all airbus’-never B-757.

          3. I had TED confused with SONG, Delta’s attempt at starting a discount airline. Song used B-757 aircraft. Thanks for the correction and sorry for posting the misinformation.

  3. What good is this place when the real service problems are very long call waiting times, bizarre flight changes and disappearing acts plus just lousy overall customer service.

    1. I agree. This was just a flyover, and we discussed many things during almost a full day of interviews related to customer service. United is working on a number of initiatives to improve service. I don’t think it’s the right time for a story yet, but I’m going to write it when it is.

  4. The elevators are not suffering from an architectural quirk; the elevators in many tall buildings work this way. The issue is that the block of floors United leased spans two elevator blocks.

  5. Quote:“You have to arrive at the airport within two hours of your scheduled departure time,” Hand told me. If a ticket agent balks, just reference the “flat tire rule” (that’s what it’s called) and yes, it’s a written policy, not something Hand made up during an interview with his favorite consumer advocate.

    Is there somewhere we can find this written policy in case we run into one of these balking agents? I might be a bit cynical, but my guess is all the agents are told to “balk” unless the person knows the magic words.

      1. That is not very encouraging if they deny it to a consumer advocate. Makes me really wonder if it is a true written policy. If they wouldn’t show it to you, how much luck you think a normal passenger would having trying to use this policy?

      2. This is true. If you show up and miss your flight, you can go standby for the next departure to that destination at no charge. The problem is most people arrive late (read: after the cutoff to check in but before departure) and throw tantrums to get put on their original flight that they did not prepare in advance enough time to make.

  6. I think that Mr. Hand should fly in disguise so that he can experience what people experience. Even though I am a frequent traveler, I had not traveled with United in about 5 or 6 years. However, last week my wife and I flew round trip on business to Anchorage from Dulles thru Chicago. ALL my flights were delayed. Our first flight from Dulles to Chicago was delayed for about 1 hour. When we arrived in Chicago our connecting flight was gone. After standing in the customer service line for 2 hours, we were informed that they could not find seats on any flights, and that we had to wait until the following day. They booked us on the same fight the following day. Unfortunately, the flight was also delayed for about 2 hours.
    The experience on our return flights can be called better, only because we didn’t have to stay overnight at the airport. Our flight from Anchorage to Chicago was (fortunately delayed for only 45 minutes). When we landed, we had to run from terminal B to C to catch our connecting flight to Dulles because, you guessed it, the flight was delayed and (lucky us) they were still boarding. We boarded the plane after everyomne was already on board and they were about to close the door. We were all sweaty, but .. whew.. very pleased that we had made it.
    However, after one hour on board and a complimentary cup of coffee, we were told that the flight had to be cencelled because there was a problem with the plane and they couldn’t find the part to fix it. Everyone had to go to the ticket counter to find another flight.
    So, after dealing with a not too friendly customer service agent who was having a bad morning, and three hours later, we found ourselves waiting to board our flight to Dulles, along with some desperate passengers because the flight had been delayed for approximately 35 minutes as they were waiting for the plane to arrive…
    That was in essence, our experience after 5 or 6 years of not flying United. We just refuse to beieve that our luck can be that bad…

  7. As a super-elite (Global Services) United traveler I can tell you they ought to be using that Emergency Operations Center every day because these days everyday is a disaster when you fly United. Management is high atop their Ivory (Willis) Tower to realize on the ground their airline is a mess. It’s great to hear how fancy their Ops. Center is how about hearing how they are going to fix their constant delays & cancelations, their train-wreak of a reservations system, and staff morale? That would be much more impressive than the “Bridge”

  8. i’ll believe it(the new united) when i see it.because my last flight in june (12)was horrid, frank the flight attendant in first class needed alot of work ,,,not helpful as a whole united needs lots of customer service education or re-education from rudeness

  9. What fries me is not so much the domino effect after one flight is delayed for WHATEVER reason, but that the net result is the airlines seem to make the customer jump through hoops with very little to no assistance. And the initial reason for plane #1’s delay may be “weather”‘ but when plane #2 is cancelled later in the day, citing “weather”‘ the only commonality those two flights share is that the were due to fly on the same day.

    1. Chris is aware of this – I flew through Chicago on 15 June. I was able to determine that United took airplanes that were on time – and shifted them to flights that were late – and took the late inbound airplanes and assigned them to west coast flights since they would buy 2 hours from the time change. You can look at United’s mobile apps and see the aircraft tail number assigned to your flight – then I could track that tail number and determine that they took on time connections coming to Chicago and they took on time airplanes destined for the west coast and re-allocated them with gate changes to late airplanes for every single west coast departure – then – they announced that the departure delays were due to ‘weather.’ Not in my book.

      AA, US and DL have finally created a system to deal with their daily issues- United on the other hand seems to act as if every single non-standard operation is the first time its ever happened. How can you have an airplane arrive in Los Angeles two hours late – original arrival time being 10pm and it lands at 1115pm and you don’t have a gate for the flight? WTF? What were you going to do if it arrived on time? If they had a gate and had a plan for the arrivals and departures that evening . .. that gate should still be open 2 hours later – its not like they were diverting airplanes to LAX. . .

      1. I’ve experienced similar “delays” and gate changes with AA where, because my flight was delayed, I had to change gates, and THEIR gate was moved to ours, the net result being THEIR delayed flight was shortened and mine was lengthened. Unfortunately for you, the airline provided you with the time (and tools!) to do some research, but it does make you even more frustrated! I’d love to see the airlines called out on this!

  10. Maybe I don’t fly enough, but my two trips in the last month of 6 legs total on the new UA were nearly flawless. My first experience in PE and it wasn’t the end of the world, all legs were under 2 hours, all flights on time and the UA people, with one exception at SFO, were great. I was a CO flyer, so being able to book PE on short-hauls is a big bonus for me and keeps my Premier account fat. I don’t like to burn my miles for an upgrade on a short flight but sitting in coach is not an option. I’ve had a similar experience as Joaquin on AirCanada 12 years ago and we’ve never flown them again, being tortured like that stays in hour mind forever.

  11. Chris,
    I know that you are doing your job, but the new United (since merger with Continental) is a mess.
    I am afraid that people reading this column will think that United is a good airline.
    Since the merger I have had a very tough time getting my miles and segments on Lufthansa credited. Before the merger, all you had to do was wait about 14 days, go to the website and put in the Lufthansa ticket number and your seat number, and you received credit.
    Since the merger, getting the Lufthansa miles and segments credited has been an exercise in extreme patience. I have called numerous times and e-mailed and somehow for 2 flight segments on Lufthansa, I was given 1.5 flight segments and a weird number of miles.
    1.5 segments? Really? What did I do, jump out of the plane mid-flight?
    As for Economy Plus on United – in the past if you were Premier/Silver elite, you could book your seat in Economy Plus when you purchased your flight. Now the Premier/Silver can only get a seat in Economy Plus when they check-in (24 hours in advance). Guess what? You will probably get stuck in the middle seat.
    And United’s planes are much dirtier than the Lufthansa planes.
    Chris, I think you got United’s dog and pony show.

    1. I tried to stay as neutral as possible in this report, but the fact is, United has a lot of work ahead in the customer service department, and it knows it. I’m going to write something about its customer service when there’s something to report. For now, I would say that its record speaks for itself.

    2. It’s good to know I’m not the only one having problems getting Lufthansa credit. I’m still waiting for credit for flights I flew in early May. They like to give you the run around!

  12. How ironic that I am reading this when I should be on an 8:08pm United flight to Chicago (out of Newark) – only it was cancelled at 11am this morning due to weather. We had a beautiful day, with one hour of thunderstorms tonight. Frustrating! And I agree with others here – United’s service is a major drop from Continental, and the crew knows it. They’ve even pointed out some of the service difference between flights is dependent on if you have a Continental or United crew. And whatever happened to meals in first class? Last time I flew first class on a 2+ hour flight all I got was a small bag of pretzels and I had to go to the stewardess when I wanted a drink refill.

  13. Pre-merger I was on-time or early almost every flight (Old UA), post-merger I have had no early flights and 3 on-time flights out of 35. It seems to me that they are no longer scheduling enough time between flights to turn around the plane property, and when I am on the 4th leg for that flight during the day, that’s typically a 2 hour delay. Giving one plane priority over another doesn’t help when the plane isn’t there. Sadly, I have had two flights where the plane was there, we boarded, and then we were removed and suddenly our plane was going to Houston, and we had to wait for another plane. I guess that’s how the priority comes into play.

    As a regular elite (1K) I used to receive good service, and feel I no longer receive any service. Pre-merger when I was stranded, even due to weather, I was given a hotel and meal vouchers, and a united gift certificate on top of it for the inconvenience. Now they refuse to provide the hotel even when it’s a mechanical stranding. In fact twice now I had to pay for a hotel out of pocket and also lost the cost of the hotel that I didn’t show up to. In both cases when I asked United to cover one of the hotels, I got a response saying that they are sorry I feel upset, and not much more than that.

    1. Funny, I say the exact same things about the old CO!
      That, and I swear the elite phone lines are now outsourced where the agents are just trained to read scripts. If the question isn’t in the script, they’re screwed.

      Last week, I called to ask if they offered infant fares since there are none listed on the website, but since SWA does, I figured it couldn’t hurt to ask. I was read the ‘lap child’ policy five times. No, you idiot, I want to BUY a seat for the kid and was wondering if there was a discount on the fare!

      1. Jeffy screwed us all, I swear. Two good airlines are now one horrible airline. I wonder how much longer Jeffy is going to be left in charge?

        You are so right about the phone line now; I didn’t even realize it until you said it. They just keep repeating themselves over and over. Then they put me on hold for a long time while they ask someone. I even had an agent last week ask me to call back in an hour and speak to someone else. I thought that was quite unprofessional. And I ended up never calling back, which is probably what they wanted.

        1. I’m highly disappoint if they outsourced that. We used to have a call center here in Houston that was pretty decent…

          SMI/J is on the naughty, do not upgrade list in my book!! 😀

          1. The old UA used to have a really good call center in Hawaii, they were so nice there. I wonder what happened to them.

            I feel like all elites are on the do not upgrade list these days. They list often shows only 1 person cleared on my flights lately.

          2. Same here. I think Jeffy is flying all of his friends FC these days…

            Another, more serious thought is that with the merger they have more elites than they know what to do with. So we are all back to being peons in the bathroom of life…

          3. Yes! I loved getting the Hawaiian agents! Sad that they’re gone. Sad that the 1K line is gone. Sad to see where this airline is going.

  14. They’re just doing what Volaris does; there are three bundles you can choose to add on to your flight. One allows you to check 25 kg (55 lbs.), bring 15 kg (33 lbs.) of carryon on (they weigh carryons), and check a piece of sports equipment. Usually costs about $15.

    One lets you make changes with no change fee (just fare difference), take the flight before or after with no charge, or change the name on your ticket. Usually about $15.

    The last one lets you check in with the elite lane, use the elite lane through security (in Mexico City), and board first, and costs $3.

    It works great.

  15. The prior posts pretty much tell the tales of woe surrounding the “New Continental;” Ohh pardon me the “New United.” Having worked for this airline for 43 years, I can tell you first-hand that the current “numeric” value assigned to flights needs some further explanation. Particularly, those that are subject to “Air Traffic Control” issues.
    In my experience, the only flights that received any kind of priority from ATC were those flights that were transporting “organs” for immediate transplant. During my tenure, it was up to the operations center at the point of origin to “verbally” advise ATC when those flights were subject to ATC delays.

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