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Knowledge Is Power

For United Chief Information Officer and Senior Vice President Keith Halbert, implementing next-generation technology means helping customers have a hassle-free travel experience

Author Mike Guy Photography United Airlines Creative Services

Image – United Airlines Creative Services

INTEGRATING CUTTING-EDGE technology with its day-to-day operations to improve the customer experience is an ongoing focus for United. Some of that is visible to the United customer— self-service kiosks, mobile check-in, baggage tracking and proactive email notifications for things like itinerary changes—but much of the tech magic takes place behind the scenes. The newest generation of technology, says Keith Halbert, United’s Senior Vice President and Chief Information Officer, allow us to focus on improving the experience of the United flier.

“I got into the airline industry because it’s exciting and fast paced,” Halbert says, “and I really love working with customers.” An Orlando native, Halbert grew up a self-described “Air Force brat,” who has traveled extensively and spent most of his career in the transportation industry. He joined United in the winter of 2008.

What attracted him to United is its focus on innovation. “There are tremendous opportunities at United that can be obtained through technology,” Halbert says. “We have a focused leadership team that’s using technology to improve the overall travel experience for customers. That is truly exciting to me.”

The first priority at United, Halbert says, is to operate a safe, clean and on- time airline. To refine this, his team is focusing on several new technologies that are already being rolled out. The first is a new flight-planning system that optimizes flight paths. “The impact for our customers is that the routes will be optimal based on the latest conditions, and that means that they will get to their destinations on time,” Halbert says. “That’s a great benefit for United fliers because it’ll ensure they get to their destination as scheduled.”

Another system deals smartly with unforeseeable delays. “We call it ‘service recovery technology,’” Halbert says. “In the event of a major weather situation, this technology allows us, in real time, to reschedule the airline while focusing on minimizing cancellations, delays and equipment changes, and rescheduling flights in a way that preserves our commitment to the customer.” To do this, United uses real-time event-driven software that, in the future, will predict overall system slowdown hours before a human can. “Before, when we had a major snowstorm, the process of rescheduling everything could take hours. With these new tools, it takes just minutes to rebuild a new schedule with substantially fewer cancellations and fewer aircraft changes, which means fewer customers’ schedules are needlessly disrupted.”

United has also rolled out wireless handheld devices to its ramp workers to optimize baggage routing and delivery. “We’re also providing handheld devices to a lot more of our customer service agents that enable them to provide rebooking information to help check in customers and make changes to their itineraries, particularly when there are large groups of people waiting to check in at high-volume hours.” Called “Line Busters,” these agents can attack the line to help shorten the time a customer has to wait in it.

In addition to the online check-in available at united.com, a new mobile phone application enables customers to check in and get flight details wirelessly. “In the past few months, we’ve also introduced the electronic boarding pass,” Halbert says. “So fliers can go directly to the gate with their phone. It’s all about streamlining the customer’s experience.”

Not to mention customizing a flier’s trip. Using the new capabilities on united.com, the mobile phone app and the check-in kiosk, customers can upgrade to Economy Plus or a Premium seat, or pre-order specialty meals. “They can also opt to be a premium passenger for a day,” Halbert adds. “That means they can get in the first class line, and get one-day access to the Red Carpet Club.” When United’s predictive software is able to accurately predict delays, it will know if you’re expecting a long layover, and can ask if you’d like to join the Red Carpet Club for the day. “There are times when weather makes delays inevitable. Things like that reduce the pain of waiting out a storm,” Halbert says.

As United works to complete its merger with Continental Airlines, he expects that the technological advances are going to multiply. “The merger presents an exciting opportunity to take each airline’s focus on the customer and technologies and blend them together,” Halbert says. “It’s going to be a great partnership, and our customers are really going to benefit from it.”

For Halbert, building the technology was the difficult part. Now, the real fun begins. “We’re running a great airline and also delivering a seamless flying experience that customers really want,” Halbert says. “I believe that with these new technologies, in the end the customer really can have it all. I’m excited!”

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