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.”