Your typical airline headquarters and operations center is somewhere near a major hub airport, usually in some nondescript building with views that don’t really inspire much of anything. United, however, couldn’t be any further from the norm. Inside Chicago’s Willis Tower, once the tallest building in the world, the once largest airline in the world is managed by motivated individuals around the clock.
I have been to a few airline operation centers in the past, but never the control center of an airline quite as massive as United. Hundreds of people, across an entire floor of the Willis Tower, are dedicated to keeping United and United Express moving efficiently and safely, a task that is far from easy.
The Network Operations Center, or NOC, is split right down the middle of the floor. One half is in charge of narrow-body operations, the other side handles wide-body flights. There is a strict division of labor in this respect, and employees sort of “graduate” from one side of the room to the other.
The airline has grown so large, in fact, that they have run out of room on this floor of the Willis Tower. Plans are being discussed to break through the ceiling and move some NOC employees up to create more space (one might say that United needs to Keep Climbing).
Located at the center of the two sides is what is know as “the bridge.” Here, top-level decision makers oversee the entire operation. Opposite from them is a large set of monitors with various operational health measurements, from the status of United hubs to a list of flights that may be pushing the tarmac delay rule. In one glance, any employee can get a snapshot of the entire airline’s operation in real-time, plus predictions for the rest of the day.
Across the floor, different teams of employees have dedicated tasks. To the right of the monitors sits the air traffic control, or ATC, team. To the left of the monitors is the weather team. The information flowing from these teams moves over to other nerve centers, like aircraft dispatch and crew management. This is to make sure that both aircraft and crews get to where they are needed before any adverse weather or air traffic control constraints occur.
One station caught my eye in particular. During irregular operations and flight disruptions, the task of getting every passenger re-booked and on their way is complex and critically important. A relatively new tool used by United can automatically re-book all passengers from a wide-body aircraft in just a few minutes.
But it doesn’t just re-book passengers randomly or by seat number. It actually takes into account each passenger’s airline status and gives those passengers priority over others. A passenger with 1K Premier status is going to be given preferential re-booking over those with lesser status, or no status at all.
Towards the back of the floor, things get a little more quiet and mysterious. There’s a room which I am not allowed to discuss, an also a rather innocuous looking conference room. This room is activated during irregular operations and after incidents, and is a room no employee ever hopes to set foot in. Seats are occupied by representatives from various departments such as dispatch, crew scheduling, media relations, and so on. Drills are occasionally held throughout the year so that they are ready in the event of a real situation.
The United NOC is staffed 24 hours a day, 365 days per year, and the work never stops. It literally takes an army of people to keep the operation moving, or in this case, an entire floor of a massive skyscraper.
All of this happens behind the scenes, isolated from the front-line staff and airport employees. The next time your flight is a little bit delayed, pause for a moment and think about about how complicated it is to juggle so many flights and how the fine folks in downtown Chicago are trying to get you to your destination.