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).

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.

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