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.

Underwritten by

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Cavalry Travel Insurance

Cavalry takes the worry of out travel by providing 24/7 access to medical and security professionals combined with the best medical evacuation and security extraction services. Cavalry gets you home safely when you need it most. Learn more at Cavalrytravelinsurance.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Seven Corners

Seven Corners has helped customers all over the world with travel difficulties, big and small. As one of the few remaining privately owned travel insurance companies, Seven Corners provides insurance plans and 24/7 travel assistance services to more than a million people each year. Because we’re privately held, we can focus on the customer without the constraints that larger companies have. Visit Seven Corners to learn more.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Sodexo North America

Sodexo North America Sodexo North America is part of a global, Fortune 500 company with a presence in 80 countries. Sodexo is a leading provider of integrated food, facilities management and other services that enhance organizational performance, contribute to local communities and improve quality of life for millions of customers in corporate, education, healthcare, senior living, sports and leisure, government and other environments daily. Learn more at Sodexoinsights.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travelex Insurance Services

Travelex Insurance Services is a leading travel insurance provider in the United States with over 55 years combined industry expertise of helping people dream, explore and travel with confidence. We offer comprehensive travel insurance plans with optional upgrades allowing travelers to customize the plans to fit their needs. Compare plans, get a quote and buy online at Travelexinsurance.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by AirHelp

AirHelp is the world’s leading flight delays compensation company, helping passengers apply for compensation following a delayed or canceled flight or when boarding has been denied. It is AirHelp’s mission to fight for passenger rights by holding airlines accountable for flights disruptions that are out of passengers’ control. AirHelp has already helped 5 million people, taking the stress out of applying for compensation and making it as hassle-free as possible for travelers around the world.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Allianz Travel Insurance

The Allianz Travel Insurance company has built its reputation on partnering with agents all around the world to provide comprehensive travel insurance for their clients. Contact Allianz Travel Insurance for a comprehensive list of coverage.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Chubb

Chubb is the world’s largest publicly traded property and casualty insurance company, and recognized as the premier provider of insurance for successful individuals and families in the U.S. and selected international markets, offering coverage for high-value automobile, homeowners, recreational marine/aviation, valuables and umbrella liability coverage. As an underwriting company, Chubb assesses, assumes and manages risk with insight and discipline, and combines the precision of craftsmanship with decades of experience to conceive, craft and deliver the best insurance coverage and services to individuals, families and business of all size.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Fareportal

Fareportal’s portfolio of brands, which include  CheapOair and  OneTravel, are dedicated to helping customers enjoy their trip. Whether you want to call, click, or use one of our travel apps, one thing is clear: We make it easy to take it easy.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Insuremyrentalcar.com

An independent provider of low cost CDW/LDW insurance for use with rental cars. Up to $100,000 cover with no deductible. Policies available on a per day, per trip or per year basis. Also works with overseas rentals. Try  Insuremyrentalcar.comnow.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Mediacom Communications

The nation’s fifth-largest cable operator, serving the smaller cities and towns in the Midwest and Southern regions of the United States. We are a high-performance broadband, entertainment, and communications company that brings the power of modern technology and quality customer experience to life inside the connected home by combining ultra-fast gigabit speeds with personalized local and over-the-top entertainment choices that fit your lifestyle. Details at  Mediacomcable.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Arch RoamRight

Arch RoamRight is one of the fastest growing, most-highly rated travel insurance companies in the United States. Travel advisors love working with us, and travelers feel protected with our trip cancellation and travel medical insurance coverage. We also make it easy to file a claim online with our fast, paperless claims website. Learn more about RoamRight travel insurance.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Virtuoso

The leading global network for luxury and experiential travel. This invitation-only organization comprises over 1,000 travel agency locations with 17,500 advisors in over 45 countries, and holds preferred relationships with 1,700 of the world’s finest travel companies. Virtuoso advisors collaborate with their clients to create personalized itineraries featuring exclusive perks, while also providing advice, access, advocacy, and accountability. For more information, visit  Virtuoso.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by VisitorsCoverage

As a company that is constantly striving to simplify travel insurance, VisitorsCoverage, is on a mission to help travelers make the better decisions about purchasing travel insurance, quickly. VisitorsCoverage has helped millions of travelers globally to buy the suitable travel insurance and explore the world with confidence. Get insurance for your next trip at  VisitorsCoverage. Lowest Price Guaranteed.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by MedjetAssist

Medjet is the premier global air-medical transport, travel security and crisis response membership program for travelers. With a MedjetAssist membership, if you become hospitalized more than 150 miles from home, we will get you from that unfamiliar hospital all the way home to the hospital you trust. All you ever pay is your membership fee. MedjetHorizon members add 24/7 personal security and crisis response benefits. Elliott.org readers enjoy discounted rates. Travel safer with  MedjetAssist.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Southwest Airlines

The mission of Southwest Airlines is dedication to the highest quality of Customer Service delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, individual pride, and Company Spirit. We are committed to provide our Employees a stable work environment with equal opportunity for learning and personal growth.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by TravelInsurance.com

TravelInsurance.com makes it fast and easy to compare and buy travel insurance online from top rated providers. Our unbiased comparison engine allows travelers to read reviews, compare pricing and benefits and buy the right policy with a price guarantee, every time. Compare and buy travel insurance now at  TravelInsurance.com.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Squaremouth

Squaremouth helps travelers easily and instantly compare travel insurance policies from all major providers. Only companies that meet the strict requirements of Squaremouth’s Zero Complaint Guarantee are available on the website. Compare policies on  Squaremouth.com to save over 70 percent on your next purchase.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travel Leaders Group

Travel Leaders Group is transforming travel through its progressive approach toward each unique travel experience. Travel Leaders Group assists millions of travelers through its leisure, business and network travel operations under a variety of diversified divisions and brands including All Aboard Travel, Andrew Harper Travel, Colletts Travel, Corporate Travel Services, CruCon Cruise Outlet, Cruise Specialists, Nexion, Protravel International, SinglesCruise.com, Travel Leaders Corporate, Travel Leaders Network and Tzell Travel Group, and its merger with ALTOUR. With more than 7,000 agency locations and 52,000 travel advisors, Travel Leaders Group ranks as one of the industry’s largest retail travel agency companies.

Elliott Advocacy is underwritten by Travelers United

If you’ve been mistreated by the airlines, Travelers United is your voice in Washington. Join the #1 travel advocacy organization working with Congress to improve and protect travelers. Plus, get $400 of annual benefits you can use for travel for only $29/year. Add your voice to ours. Make travel better.  Join today.

Send this to a friend