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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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NEWS PACKETS
IBM’s $6.4B deal for HashiCorp comes with challenges. IBM is buying software maker HashiCorp in a deal that will complement Red Hat, which has boosted IBM’s revenue growth since the $34 billion acquisition in 2019. But HashiCorp—which pioneered open-source software that developers utilize to control cloud infrastructure—has reported decelerating growth rates throughout fiscal 2024 and William Blair analyst Jason Ader says he believes the deal with IBM is an indication that HashiCorp’s management and board were “fatigued and may believe that a fix will be harder or take longer than originally expected,” writes TechCrunch.
AI has raised billions but faces a reality check. While investors have put $330 billion into about 26,000 AI and machine-learning startups over the past three years, many of these companies are facing challenges related to the gap between spending and sales. Anthropic, which raised more than $7 billion, is spending about $2 billion a year but recording only $150 million to $200 million in revenue, the New York Times reports. Inflection AI folded its original business while Stability AI laid off employees. “It doesn’t matter how cool it is what you do—does it have business viability?,” asks Databricks CEO Ali Ali Ghodsi.
Rubrik had a solid IPO. Now comes the hard part. Last week, cybersecurity startup Rubrik enjoyed a fairly solid pop on the first day of trading, with shares rising nearly 16% to close at $37 on the first day of trading. “Profitability is paramount,” says Bipul Sinha, cofounder and CEO, in an interview with Yahoo Finance. Though Rubrik reported a $354 million net loss in the latest fiscal year and the company’s revenue growth took a hit when it shifted to a purely cloud-based platform called Rubrik Security Cloud, it hopes subscription revenue gains will point to accelerated growth over time, the Wall Street Journal reports.
ADOPTION CURVE
A new research study by Rubrik found that as organizations become more dependent on the cloud, new security blindspots are emerging. Among the organizations that were stung by a cyberattack last year, Rubrik also found that many were attacked across multiple areas of their hybrid environment, with 67% of attacks impacting SaaS data, while 66% occurred in the cloud and 51% for on-premises locations.
The research was based on a survey conducted by Wakefield Research of more than 1,600 IT and security leaders—half of whom are CIOs and CISOs.
JOBS RADAR
Hiring:
– Motion Recruitment, a Lewisville, Texas, employment agency is seeking a chief technology officer. Posted salary range: $250K to $350K/year.
– Workday, a McLean, Va., cloud enterprise company for finance and human resources, is seeking a CTO of SLED/Federal. Posted salary range: $276.6K to $480K/year.
– Corebridge Financial, a New York, N.Y., financial services firm, is seeking a CIO of retirement services. Posted salary range: $210K to $245K/year.
Hired:
– Akero Therapeutics has appointed Scott Gangloff as CTO. Most recently, Gangloff served as VP of global biopharmaceutical development at Incyte Corporation.
– Follett Higher Education Group appointed Mani Suri as the company’s new CIO. He will assume the role on April 22 and serve as the senior leader for the coordination of IT functions that support the campus retailer’s stores.
– Traydstream named Stephan Hufnagl as its new CTO. In his most recent role at Microsoft, he was responsible for data, analytics, and AI teams, driving projects that utilized the tech giant’s cloud services.
– Percona has announced the appointment of Liz Warner as its new CTO, where she will develop and implement the company’s open-source database software solutions and services.
– The newly formed T&Pm has named the former head of agency tech at Publicis Groupe, Ekin Caglar, as CTO. It’s the first hire since two AI-focused marketing agencies—The&Partnership and mSix&Partners—merged in March.

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