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Into the Matrix

How does Kevin Knight, United's senior vice president of planning, manage the airline's complex and ever-shifting flight schedule and pricing plans? Very carefully, and very well.

Author Rod O'Connor Photography United Airlines creative services

IT’S NOT AN EASY THING, predicting the future. But with the help of some sophisticated algorithms, optimization models and a dedicated staff, Kevin Knight, United’s senior vice president of planning, looks into a crystal ball every single day.

Knight and his team are charged with forecasting the demand for each seat on each flight to the more than 200 destinations across the airline’s expansive international flight map. Based on that potential demand, they begin work well in advance to develop a global flight schedule and pricing plan.

The process is a massive undertaking, requiring constant analysis of streams of financial information, competitive data and operational factors. Knight’s team of revenue managers and scheduling analysts must also consider the schedules and connection possibilities with United Express partners and fellow Star Alliance members. And all that number-crunching and prognosticating is focused on one goal: creating a competitively priced product that best meets customers’ needs and allows the airline to operate profitably.

“In essence, we’re responsible for determining where we fly and for pricing our product,” says Knight, 53, whose glasses convey a studious demeanor, but whose calm confidence projects a man totally at ease with a job that moves at lightning speed.

Of course, even the most skilled fortune teller couldn’t have predicted the depth of the current economic downturn, which has resulted in significant declines in demand for air travel. This has caused United, like other businesses, to resize its service to fit the marketplace. For the year, United’s capacity will be down roughly eight percent, a number that’s in line with other major carriers. Knight acknowledges that any service reduction represents an inconvenience for someone.

A self-proclaimed “airline junkie,” he had a keen interest in becoming a pilot and enrolled in the aviation program at Westminster College. He worked at airports all through college—as a customer service representative and ramp worker, in the freight office, pretty much everywhere—and ultimately chose the management route, where he could combine his passion for flying with his knack for business.

After more than 30 years in various planning positions with airlines including Hughes Airwest (a small carrier once owned by Howard Hughes), Northwest Airlines and, since 1993, United, he’s pored over enough analytics to know that any airline’s success is attributable at least in part to the constant tightrope walk matching capacity with demand.

To build its schedule, United must look at more than simply how many people want to go from point A to point B; the company also has to take into account the revenue potential of every market and the operational costs—staffing, airport fees, equipment maintenance—required to serve each destination. “There are situations where our customers would love us to provide nonstop service to a point, and it’s simply not viable for us to do so,” he says.

This is a reality every carrier faces. However, one of United’s distinct competitive advantages is its strength of schedule: Five hubs, all in large markets (Chicago, Denver, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.), the United Express partnerships and key global air rights in Asia, Europe and Latin America through Star Alliance, have helped United weather the recession.

Despite a drop in capacity during the downturn, United serves approximately the same number of cities it did a year ago. The airline has even increased service in some markets, for instance offering new nonstop flights from Washington, D.C., to Moscow, Dubai and Geneva. And leveraging the smaller aircraft of its regional partners has allowed United to maintain service in cities that can’t support larger jets.

“We look to match United’s capacity with market demand,” Knight explains. “In some cases we’re flying larger aircraft, and other times smaller aircraft with higher frequency.”

Constant updates to United’s schedule require a staggering amount of work behind the scenes. In many ways, the process is something like an assembly line; planners set schedules six or more months in advance and then pass them along to colleagues who “operationalize” them by ensuring gates are available, that each plane has enough ground time to be cleaned and loaded, and that proper flight and ground crews are assigned.

By the time a schedule arrives on the desk of Michael Moeller, one of Knight’s analysts, there are just 45 days to go. And right now, Moeller sees an opportunity to add a weekend flight from Chicago to Columbus, which explains why he’s power-scrolling through two computer screen’s worth of data that look like something out of The Matrix.

Simultaneously, he scrutinizes flightperformance histories. He’s crunching the pricing data from United’s competitors; he’s also looking at aircraft availability and traffic information at both airports. “I’m confirming the additional trip works operationally and in a costeffective way for the airline,” Moeller explains. Everything checks out, and with a click of his mouse, the flight goes live—from idea to reality.

“What I take the most pride in is our network itself—we have one of the most compelling network propositions in the industry,” Knight says. “But beyond that, it’s the day-to-day victories that are most satisfying. If we provide convenient schedules at an attractive price and they make financial sense for the airline—that’s a very good day.”

Pink Is in the Air

THROUGHOUT THE MONTH of October, United and United Express employees are showing their support for the Breast Cancer Network of Strength and its effort to provide services for individuals and families touched by breast cancer. By purchasing and wearing specially designed neckties, scarves and hats, our colleagues are helping to provide ongoing support to those affected by breast cancer—including patients, their family members, friends and coworkers. October is National Breast Cancer Awareness month, and United is a proud, committed partner in the fight against cancer. Over the past five years, United employees, friends and family have participated in the Breast Cancer Network of Strength’s annual Mother’s Day Walk to Empower events across the country—and through the enthusiastic fundraising efforts of our Walk to Empower teams, we’ve raised nearly $2 million for the organization. If you’d like to support the Breast Cancer Network of Strength through the donation of your Mileage Plus miles, visit www.united.com/charitymiles

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