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Op Music

For Scott Dolan, United’s senior vice president of airport operations, the complex matrix of an airport terminal is a little like a symphony— and every player has a part

Author ROD O’CONNOR Photography UNITED AIRLINES CREATIVE SERVICES

IT’S 4:34 P.M. ON A FRIDAY, and travelers are queuing up for the 5:05 p.m. flight from O’Hare to Minneapolis. The gate agent begins the boarding process, and the Global Services, 1K and First Class customers step forward onto the red carpet, wheeling their weathered carry-ons onto the jet bridge. A few minutes later, seating groups one and two are called. Meanwhile, outside on the tarmac, employees dart purposefully on “tugs” as the final pieces of luggage are loaded. This aircraft will depart on time, maybe even a few minutes early.

Looking on approvingly from the gate’s floor-to-ceiling windows is a man in a blue blazer sporting a closely cropped haircut and more than a tinge of early gray. He is Scott Dolan, United’s 38-year-old senior vice president of airport operations, and he lives for moments like this. He can’t resist stopping to watch the symphony of moving parts that is an airport in action. “It takes many people to get an airplane out on time,” he notes. “Every minute, every flight counts.”

Dolan has an office at United’s Operations Center in Elk Grove Village, Ill., but he doesn’t see it often. Instead, he spends many of his days walking through airports all over the world, looking for any challenges during check in, any hold-ups at the gate, any opportunities to help his teams make the machine hum a little smoother.

For United, Dolan manages and supports the activities of all operating groups at the airports. That means an army of more than 16,000—from the customer service representatives in the lobbies and gates to the ramp service employees, ground equipment and facility mechanics, and operation control employees.

Dolan and his team are charged with making sure flights depart on time and the customers’ baggage arrives with them—not to mention oversight of the hundreds of thousands of tons of freight and mail United transports each year. In a constant battle for perfection, they analyze the load factor of every plane and assign staff accordingly. “We’re looking for the quickest and safest way to turn that airplane—how efficiently can the team pull together to have customers deplane, unload baggage, clean the plane and get the next fight ready. It starts with the planning.”

The operations of an airport comprise a staggeringly complex matrix with countless moving parts, but one Dolan is eminently qualified to manage. Before joining United five years ago, he oversaw the operations of Atlas Air and Polar Air Cargo, as chief operating officer of its parent, Atlas Air Worldwide Holdings. He also spent several years at General Electric, where he trained in the legendary Six Sigma quality program, a management approach that uses analytics to maximize efficiencies in any given business situation.

Dolan is self-effacing when discussing his own career. But he becomes animated when the subject turns to “analytics,” or the study and use of business data—in particular, how United is working to improve customer service from the moment a passenger buys a ticket.

Based on buying patterns, United can tell what types of travelers—from seasoned “road warriors” to once-a-year vacationers—are likely to be coming through the door at any given moment. “We know in advance how many people are likely to be checking bags, how many are familiar with the self-service kiosks, so we can make key staffing decisions,” he explains.

The airline also employs service directors, peer leaders who watch the check-in area, sometimes via video monitors, to ensure that every line is moving to set standards.

When the line grows, agents are rotated in to help out. And if the wait becomes shorter than expected, employees can be sent where they’re needed. To help facilitate this fluid staffing, the service directors communicate with their teams via BlackBerry. “We used to staff the gates and wait for the work to come,” Dolan explains. “Now, we move the manpower to where the work is.”

These systems are put to the ultimate test during the summer, when more flights mean more crowded airports. And then there’s the unpredictability of the warmer weather, when thunderstorms can cause missed connections or cancellations.

With so many factors beyond the airline’s control, Dolan says it’s vital to have recovery plans in place.

To that end, United is empowering its people to offer a goodwill gesture in real time to customers who experience a disservice. Depending on the situation, that customer can then go online to select dollar-offe-certificates, Mileage Plus bonus miles or other compensation.

Moving quickly through the concourse to make his own flight to San Diego, Dolan pauses in front of a flight information display. He can’t pass one without taking a scan of the expected arrivals and departures. Right now three flights from LaGuardia are delayed because of heavy winds. He pulls out his BlackBerry, which lets him drill into the flight numbers at any airport around the world.

Still, Dolan admits that no amount of technology can ever replace old-fashioned hustle—especially in the summertime. “When one of our ramp service employees goes out of their way to run a bag onto a plane just in time, in the grand scheme of the hundreds of thousands of bags we move in a day, it may seem small,” he says. “But to that family going on vacation, it’s very important.”

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