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How United Airlines’ CIO regained customer and employee trust in its tech

When Jason Birnbaum joined United Airlines in 2015 as vice president of operations and employee technology, expectations for the tech team were shockingly low.
“Our employees and our customers didn’t trust our tools,” says Birnbaum, who ascended to the role of senior vice president of digital technology in 2019 and more recently became chief information officer in July 2022. “When I got here, one of the big first issues we really attacked was trust.”
The legacy of the airline’s three-year stint in bankruptcy, which ended in 2006, meant that much-needed tech investments had been shuffled to the backseat, while mergers like the 2010 acquisition of Continental Airlines had added complexity by creating a hodgepodge of technology systems. Much of the IT team’s time was spent just making sure that the technology actually worked reliably, Birnbaum says.
One of his first moves was to give United’s workforce smartphones and iPads, helping them get out from behind a computer screen and more directly in front of customers. In more recent years, Birnbaum has been able to tackle more complex problems.
One important example is “turn”—industry lingo for getting a recently arrived plane ready for takeoff. As many as 30 different groups spread across functions including pilots, flight attendants, gate agents, and technicians are responsible for “turn,” but those employees weren’t seamlessly able to talk to each other. A flight attendant in the back of the plane watching overhead bins fill up would need to call the front flight attendant, who would have to tell the pilot, and then the gate agent to check bags.
​​”You can imagine that by the time that happens, it’s a little bit chaotic,” Birnbaum says. A new tool called EZ Chat was created to allow everyone to chat through the same application.
Many of United’s tech investments have been focused on sharing steady updates about flight timing, gate announcements, details about checked baggage, and other key information to help employees and passengers get to their final destination. Birnbaum aspires to ensure the alerts shared via the United app are in simple terms with as little jargon as possible. “Airlines are a team sport,” says Birnbaum. “Everyone has to get to the flight.”
United recently launched a customer service AI chatbot that can write conversational answers to questions like, “What’s United’s policy for unaccompanied minors?” Another tool, called “Connection Saver,” informs pilots, passengers, and gate agents about delays for connected flights and uses algorithms to recommend if a flight should be held. Alerts are sent to other passengers to let them know the flight may leave a few minutes late but should make up for the lost time in the air. When connecting flights are missed, United automatically rebooks travelers, but they can also opt to explore other flight options in the app.
AI is also being used to help United’s “storytellers” write push alerts that are sent to customers’ phones when a flight has an issue. AI helps draft the text messages, enabling the storytellers to cover a lot more flights, Birnbaum says. Still, he notes the importance of having a “human in the loop” to validate the accuracy and quality of the communications.
After the pandemic lockdowns brought the air travel industry to a near standstill, the forecast is looking brighter for carriers like United. This year, 4.7 billion people are projected to travel by plane, soaring past the pre-pandemic level of 4.5 billion in 2019. United has booked steady revenue growth and two annual profits as passenger travel rebounds.
United is currently experimenting with generative AI through Amazon’s Bedrock, harnessing the tech giant’s catalog of large language models rather than building its own models. Amazon Web Services is also United’s primary cloud provider—and while most of the airline’s consumer-facing technology is in the cloud, some older engineering systems are still being unwound and moved to the cloud.
“We have every single flavor of technology that’s really ever been invented,” says Birnbaum, in reference to the complex job of updating decades-old systems. “We are taking our time.”
John Kell
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