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Unconditional Cabin Conditions

In addition to maintaining the safety and reliability of United's fleet, Senior Vice President Jim Keenan is responsible for keeping the cabins in top condition

Author Aaron Gell Photography United Airlines Creative Services

WHAT DOES IT TAKE to keep a commercial widebody jetliner clean and the myriad seat and other features in working order? In an effort to find out, more than 100 volunteers from across United’s various divisions filed into a maintenance hangar at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport one afternoon last year. Each participant received a pair of purple latex gloves, a supply of cleaning products and detailed instructions from a member of United’s cleaning crew. Then they boarded a pair of 747s—one just in from Narita, the other from Hong Kong—and set to work.

The unique event was designed to highlight the company’s redoubled efforts to ensure that cabins are clean and that seating and other equipment, from the tray tables to the inflight entertainment system, are in good working order. Those wielding sponges included a number of United’s top executives (folks normally more accustomed to spreadsheets than spray bottles), among them Jim Keenan, the airline’s affable senior vice president of the worldwide maintenance division, called United Services, who just seven months into his tenure was busily cleaning things up in more ways than one.

“The big takeaway for everyone involved was that making sure a cabin meets our customers’ expectations is hard, detailed work,” Keenan says, now sitting in his office at United’s maintenance base adjacent to San Franciso International Airport. “We knew we had to improve.”

Keenan and his experienced teams are also responsible for the numerous cabin remodeling and condition improvements currently underway.

At the top of the list are the new first and business class cabins on United’s Boeing 767s and 747s, incorporating new lie-flat seats, improved on-demand entertainment and large, flat-screen monitors—a truly luxurious experience, Keenan notes, that’s paying off with customer satisfaction ratings nearly double those before the modifications. The same work on the 777 fleet will begin this year.

In addition, the reconfiguration of 56 Airbus planes—including installing first-class cabins and leather seats throughout—as well as new carpet and other enhancements, was recently completed. “We’re springboarding off of these successes to bring cabin improvements to virtually all of our airplanes,” Keenan says.

At the core of Keenan’s responsibilities is oversight of United’s global maintenance and engineering operation, which contributes significantly to the airline’s reliability performance and safety, its No. 1 priority. United Services comprises a network of industry-leading maintenance facilities at or near more than 95 airports around the globe, providing 24/7 maintenance, repair and overhaul services not only to United’s fleet but to those of other airlines.

“We even perform the maintenance and overhaul of the Air Force’s F117 engines, which power the C17s that ferry troops overseas,” Keenan adds. “That’s a sacred trust, and something we all take an enormous amount of pride in.”

The decision to bring the cleaning function under his division’s purview elevated the importance of the task within the company and the discipline with which United approaches it, Keenan explains. And the change is paying off .

The feedback United is receiving from its customers—actual ratings via an online survey—shows a threefold improvement over the past year alone. “We know we have more to do, but the transformation that is well underway is a real testament to the professionalism and commitment of United’s people,” Keenan says. Better yet, he notes, this success has been achieved with specially created cabin-cleaning products, which recently won the Environmental Protection Agency’s Design for the Environment (DfE) certification for their exclusive environmentally sensitive formulations.

This success would not have been possible, Keenan says, without the support of many teams within the airline, which worked together to adjust flying schedules so that intensive cleanings and necessary repairs could happen more often. “We’ve been strategic about how we’ve deployed our cleaning and cabin-repair teams throughout the cities we serve, which has enabled us to dramatically increase the frequency with which we accomplish those tasks,” he explains.

Even with all the eff orts being undertaken by the airline to improve the overall condition of its aircraft interiors, Keenan emphasizes that customers, too, have a role to play. “We fully understand that someone might have a burned-out dome light or a headset plug that doesn’t work and he or she may just be inclined to keep quiet,” he notes. “But we really do need our travelers to notify our flight attendants whenever they notice something amiss.”

A big part of the airline’s eff orts is a rigorous process in which the flight attendants and cabin maintenance teams work closely together to log and prioritize nonworking items, Keenan emphasizes, which helps his teams to fix the issues as soon as possible. “The more in-the-moment feedback we receive from our customers, the more we can do to make their next experience with United that much better,” Keenan adds.

Keenan, 45, who lives in the Bay Area with his wife and two teenage sons, has been fascinated with aviation since childhood. “It sounds corny, but I grew up in the hills near the San Francisco airport, and I spent a tremendous amount of time watching airplanes take off and land. It was part of the reason I elected to study mechanical engineering with a focus on aerospace.”

After joining United Airlines right out of college, Keenan spent 14 years at the company before moving to Pratt & Whitney for several years, during which time he got to experience United as a Global Services customer. “That gave me a solid understanding of the travel experience from the perspective of a premium customer,” he says. Having learned the importance of that first-hand experience, he now flies United more than 100 times a year. “We have to be very tough on ourselves in terms of maintaining the highest expectations.”

Which isn’t to say he’s complaining. “I have the greatest job in the world,” Keenan says. “Not only do I get to work around airplanes every day, but I get to work with people who have an equal passion for continuing the proud tradition of United Airlines. We are the stewards of what I consider the proudest legacy in commercial aviation history.”

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