MIAMI — As the world’s largest airline in terms of fleet size (nearly 700 mainline aircraft), number of destinations (360 airports across 6 continents), and revenue miles per passenger (RPK’s) United Airlines is no stranger to mind-blowing superlatives. The airline carries more traffic than any other airline in the world with more than 2 million flights per year, yes million. Each day, this translates into over 5,300 flights per day from hubs in Chicago, Cleveland, Denver, Guam, Houston, Los Angeles, New York/Newark, San Francisco, Tokyo and Washington, D.C. In 2012, mainline United alone carried a staggering 93,595,000 passengers. If United were a country, it would carry enough passengers to qualify itself as the 14th largest country in the world. If you factor in the additional United Express passenger count of over 142 million passengers per year, that total surpasses the population of Russia. The heart and soul of this flying machine are the over 85,000 employees, the largest number in the industry, who make UA run 365/24/7. There is one place that centers the mainline operations of the world’s largest airline day-to-day, United’s new Network Operations Center (NOC).
It would seem only natural that when the world’s largest airline went looking for a new headquarters, it would relocate to what was once the tallest office building in the world and remains the second tallest in the United States: the iconic 108 story Willis Tower in Chicago, Illinois. Formerly known as the Sears Tower, the 27th floor of this 1,451 foot skyscraper is now home to another superlative: the largest, most technologically advanced airline nerve center in the world: United’s new NOC. At over 52,000 square feet it makes NASA’s Mission Center look decidedly diminutive and old school by comparison.
Shortly after the United/Continental merger was announced in May 2010, United quickly concluded that the existing Continental NOC in downtown Houston, Texas and United’s legacy Elk Grove, Illinois facility were not adequate to support what would become once again the world’s largest airline. Construction of the new Willis Tower NOC took 19 weeks with 100 workers on three shifts per day, seven days a week. They installed 120 miles of category 6 telephone/data cabling, 590 light fixtures, 57 flat panel screens, and 341 console positions in this very abbreviated time. The facility opened in June 2012, a few months after the March 3, 2012 final stage of the operational merger when the passenger service systems were merged and the Continental name was consigned to history. With separate labor contracts in force for legacy United and former Continental flight and cabin crew, the operations of this new facility would face an additional challenge than the already difficult task of combining the two old facilities and two airlines into one. Pilots unions have signed a single contract but cabin attendants have not agreed to a single collective bargaining agreement as of yet. It is not a secret that the merger has not been smooth for employees or customers, but the new NOC is a clear sign that United is making big investments to improve its operations. The efforts seem to be paying off: According to FlightStats.com, United’s on-time arrivals improved from 71.83% in August 2012 to 85% in October 2013.
Mission: Center & Comfort
Airways was invited to look behind-the-scenes of the NOC. At first casual glance, it looks not unlike a trading floor of an investment bank with monitors and desks spread out as far as the eye can see. Having visited a number of airline NOC’s, they all tend to look similar but upon deeper inspection, United has really placed a premium on ergonomics, work-flow, technology, employee comfort, and indeed morale to improve communication, decision making and ultimately flight operations. With the facility operating at around 300 people at any given time working 3 shifts around the clock, comfort and mitigating fatigue were clearly paramount. Instead of blazing fluorescents, the lighting and timed window shades adjust to match the ambient light outside the building creating a comfortable, less stressful environment. Instead of a bunker, the NOC team is treated to a world-class view of the renowned Chicago skyline. Substantial attention was even paid to the acoustics. We visited on a day when there were many diversions and delays in the northeast due to summertime weather, yet the NOC was as calm and quiet as could be. The 341 desks throughout the facility electrically raise and lower to match a person’s taste for working sitting down or standing up. The occupants can even adjust their own lighting and ventilation – try that in a cubicle! The NOC even has its own dedicated A/C and ventilation system that circulates 21 cubic feet of air per minute to keep personnel alert, comfortable, and healthy such is the importance of situational awareness here. Given how crucial the NOC is, Network Ops can run on its own backup power for up to 10 hours to allow for a back-up facility to take over should there be disruption at the Willis Tower. Even the fire-alarm system is unique in continuously sampling the air to detect smoke long before a conventional smoke alarm would.
Walking The Floor: Department-by-Department
The workstations are arranged in a zigzag pattern that allows people to be close to the people they need to interact with, yet not be in each other’s way. Though there are many department systems in the facility such as FLIFO (flight information), Flight Planning, Weight and Balance, Flight Following, Aircraft Routing, Crew Management, Maintenance Center, Disruption Management, Ground-to-Air Communications, and Weather, the more then 60 real-time applications reside in the cloud so effectively any user can have access to any piece of information and change their desk’s function at the stroke of a key without the individual having to change desks. Though very collaborative, United groups these systems around fleets and international / domestic flights.
First we encounter dispatch operations and load planning. This department is at the core of what the NOC is all about and could warrant an article on its own. At a top level, the dispatch team dispatches planes and coordinates with the Air Traffic Center department and airport authorities, designs the most fuel-efficient and economical flight plans. They often adjust those routes when events dictate such as weather, equipment issues, and even VIP movements such as Air Force One. These teams can speed up or slow flights to mesh with airport and airspace ground operations. The dispatchers are really the unsung heroes of any airline behind the scenes. The load planners calculate and finalize weight of the aircraft’s passenger load, fuel, and cargo payload.
Working very closely with the dispatchers is United’s own weather team. Like most airlines, United uses third-party private weather forecasters but has its own team of meteorologists tracking weather domestically and internationally. Their forecasts are not only important for safety, passenger comfort, and operation reasons but for economic reasons as well. These meteorological prognostications affect routing, scheduling, and consequently the amount of fuel taken onboard.
On the opposite side of Weather is UAL’s own Air Traffic Center operations. This team is in constant touch with ATC Centers, airports, as well as security agencies monitoring geopolitical conditions and alerting flight crews to any potential risks.
TOMC Fleet Coordination or Maintenance Center figures heavily into the operation of the NOC and United. They have 2 primary job roles: planners who plan work on all planes and controllers who communicate with flight crew on the ground, in the air, and with maintenance teams. These teams, grouped by fleet, have many responsibilities including making sure that aircraft reach their assigned base at scheduled intervals, assisting crews with any issues that may occur while in flight, and real-time monitoring of aircraft systems. There is a pilot representing each aircraft type in the fleet stationed at each of these groups.
Next is Pilot Scheduling, again centered around fleet and domestic/international operations. They are responsible for crew scheduling and replacements. This team also handles hotels, layovers, duty hours, and transportation. When reserve pilots get the call to get to the airport, this is the team making the call. In-Flight Crew Scheduling performs a similar task for the cabin attendants yet there is that added level of complexity. United’s cabin attendants work original United aircraft while Continental’s work on ex-CO “metal”. For this reason, 2 software systems are used: United’s UniMatic and Continental’s legacy Cosmos system. The operation and graphic interface are very different between the two, though the schedulers are cross-trained between the 2 systems.
At the center of the entire NOC named appropriately but with a nod to “Star Trek” is The Bridge. Senior staff are located here including the Network Directors who are the final decision makers for network-wide and serious flight issues. A conference table is set-up right out in the open for impromptu meetings with all affected teams. Looming in front of the bridge is an impressive bank of switchable plasma displays reminiscent of NASA which communicates real-time overall network system status, hub status, real-time weather maps, flight completion rate, even “Red Zone” flights that are highlighted for being not on time for departure or arrival or are diverting often due to weather and aerospace delay. A screen tracks aircraft that have been taxiing for extended periods of time. Animated red and green status meters indicate at a quick glance the overall rating for these aspects of operations.
An interesting department off to the side but very important is the Pro Team. This group deals mainly with flights when equipment issues result in a lengthy to delay or when the decision is taken for an entirely new airplane and/or crew to be dispatched. When pressed into action, this team interfaces with every department to get passengers, planes, and crew to their destination as quickly as possible.
The final stop on our tour is United’s Emergency Operations Center (EOC). This “War Room” whose name suggests its use has representatives on hand from every facet of the airline beyond just the NOC such as communications, customer care, employee care teams, senior airline executives, etc. It has been deployed for disruptive events such as Hurricane Sandy, the Boeing 787 grounding, as well as the Asiana 214 crash when United provided support for its Star Alliance partner.
Through much of its history, United has been an airline of superlatives and impressive numbers. Recently, it has rededicated itself to being more user friendly to passengers and employees alike. The airline is using its iconic re-born “Fly The Friendly Skies” ad campaign as a rallying cry. If the commitment the airline has made to its new nerve center is any indication, United’s NOC mission Center will contribute a lot toward mission accomplished.