As CIO of United Airlines, Jason Birnbaum is laser focused on using technology and data to enable the company’s 86,000 employees to create as seamless a customer travel experience as possible. “Our goal is to improve the entire travel process from when you plan a trip to when you plan the next trip,” says Birnbaum, who joined the airline in 2015 and became CIO last July.

One opportunity for improvement was with customers who are frustrated about arriving at the gate after boarding time and unable to board because the doors are shut, while the plane is sitting on the ground. “The situation is not only frustrating to our customers, but also to our employees,” Birnbaum says. “We are in the business of getting people to where they want to go. If we can’t help them do that, it drives us crazy.”

So, Birnbaum and his team built ConnectionSaver, an analytics-driven engine that assesses arriving connections, calculates a customer’s distance from the gate, looks at all other passenger itineraries, where the plane is going, and whether the winds will allow the flight to make up time, and then makes a real-time determination about waiting for the connecting passenger. ConnectionSaver communicates directly with the customer that the agents are holding the plane.

ConnectionSaver is a great example of how a “simple” solution resulted from a tremendous amount of cultural, organizational, and process transformation, so I asked Birnbaum to describe the transformation “chapters” behind this kind of innovation.

Chapter 1: IT trust and credibility

“For years, it was common for technology organizations to have too little credibility to drive transformation,” says Birnbaum. “That was our story, and we worked very diligently to change the narrative.”

Key to changing the narrative was giving senior IT leaders end-to-end business process ownership responsibilities. “We started moving toward a process ownership model several years ago, and since then, we’ve made significant improvements in technology reliability, user satisfaction, and our employees’ trust in the tools,” Birnbaum says. “This is important because every transformation chapter depends on use of the technology. If our employees don’t trust the tools, we will never get to transformation.”

A process could be gate management, buying a ticket, managing baggage, or boarding a plane, each of which runs on multiple systems. “Before we moved from systems to process ownership, people would see that their system is up, so they would assume the problem belonged to someone else,” says Birnbaum. “In that model, no one was looking out for the end user. Now, we have collaborative conversations about accountability for business outcomes, not system performance.”

Chapter 2: Improving the employee experience

Like every company, United Airlines has been working to improve the customer experience for years, but more recently has expanded its “design thinking” energies to tools for employees. To facilitate this expansion, Birnbaum grew the Digital Technology employee user experience team from three people to 60, all acutely focused on integrating the employee experience into the customer experience.

The employee user experience team spends time with gate agents, contact centers, and airplane technicians to identify technology to help employees help customers. “The goal of the employee user experience team is to provide tools that are intuitive enough for the employee to create a great customer experience, which in turn, creates a great employee experience,” says Birnbaum. “It is important for companies to invest in change management, but you need less change management if you give employees tools that they really want to use.”

For example, the user experience team learned that flight attendants felt ill equipped to improve the experience of a customer once the customer is on the plane. If a customer agreed to change seats or check a bag, for example, there was little a flight attendant could do to improve the experience in real-time. “All they had was a book of discount coupons, but the customer had to call a contact center with a code to get the discount,” says Birnbaum. “The reward required five more steps for the customer; it did not feel immediate.”

So, the team developed a tool called “In the Moment Care,” which uses an AI engine to make reward recommendations to the flight attendant who can offer compensation, miles, or discounts in any situation. The customer can see the reward on his or her phone right away, which immediately improves both the customer and employee experience. “We knew the customers would be happier with having their problem solved in real-time, but we were surprised by how much the flight attendants loved the tool,” says Birnbaum.  “They said, ‘I get to be the hero. I get to save the day.’”

The employee user experience team then turned its attention to the process of “turning the plane,” which includes every task that happens from the minute a plane lands to when it takes off again. It involves at least 35 employees in a 30-minute window.  

Take baggage, for example. Traditionally, during the boarding process, if the overhead bins were starting to fill up at the back of the plane, that flight attendant had no way to communicate to the flight attendant in the front of the plane that it is time to start checking bags. Their only option was to call the captain to call the network center to call the gate to get them to start checking bags.

To create a better communication channel, the employee user experience team worked with the developers to create a new tool, Easy Chat, that puts every employee responsible for a turn activity into one chat room for the length of the turn. “Whether the bins are filling up, or they need more orange juice, or they are waiting for two more customers to come down the ramp, the team can communicate directly to digitally coordinate the turn,” says Birnbaum. “Once the flight is gone, each employee will be connected to another group in another time and place.”

Again, Birnbaum sees that the value of Easy Chat is well beyond the customer experience. “I was just talking to a few flight attendants the other day, who told me that Easy Chat makes them feel like they are a part of a team, rather than a bunch of people with individual roles,” says Birnbaum. “United has a lot of employees, and they don’t work with the same people every day. The new tool allows us them to work as a team and to feel connected to each other.”

Chapter 3: Data at scale

To improve the analytics capabilities of the company, Birnbaum and his team built a hub and spoke model with a central advanced analytics team in IT that collaborates with each operational area to develop the right data models. 

“The operating teams live and breathe the analytics — they are the people scheduling the planes — so they are key to unlocking the value of the analytics,” says Birnbaum. “Digital Technology’s job is to collect, structure, and secure the data, and help our operational groups exploit it. We want the data scientists in the operating areas to take the lead on how to make the data valuable at scale.”

For example, United has always worked to understand the cause of a flight delay. Was it a mechanical problem? Did the crew show up late? “The teams would spend hours figuring out whose fault it was, which was a huge distraction from running the operation,” says Birnbaum. To solve this problem, the analytics team, in partnership with the operations team, created a “Root Cause Analyzer” that collects operational data about the flight.

“Now, instead of spending time debating why the flight was delayed, we can quickly see exactly what happened and spend all of our time on process improvement,” says Birnbaum.

With the foundational, employee experience, and data chapters now under way, Birnbaum is thinking about the next chapter: Using technology and analytics to integrate and personalize a customer’s entire travel experience.

“If you have a rough time getting to the airport, but the flight attendant greets you by your name and knows what you ordered, you will still have a good trip,” says Birnbaum.  “It is our job to use technology to help our employees deliver that great customer experience.”

Digital Transformation, Employee Experience, Travel and Hospitality Industry

The last thing any CIO wants is to experience catastrophic operational issues during a peak season, but that’s exactly what executives at Southwest Airlines faced last week. While weather may have been the root cause, the 16,000 flights canceled between Dec. 19-28 far exceeded any other airlines’ operational impacts.

Experts point to Southwest’s point-to-point operating model as problematic in recovering from major weather issues compared to the hub-and-spoke model used by many major airlines. But Southwest’s technology was also cited by experts and the company’s leadership as contributing to the calamity. “IT and infrastructure from the 1990s,” said Casey A. Murray, president of the Southwest Airlines Pilots Association, and “Southwest has always been a laggard when it comes to technology,” according to Helane Becker, an aviation analyst with Cowen.

Even before the blizzard hit, Southwest Airlines CEO Bob Jordan acknowledged on Nov. 30, “We’re behind. As we’ve grown, we’ve outrun our tools. If you’re in an airport, there’s a lot of paper, just turning an aircraft.”

Surely many more details about this failure will surface over the next several months. CIOs know that tech issues get the trigger finger of blame when businesses experience operational disasters, but we also know there are culture and process issues that can be primary and often untold contributors — both well within the CIO’s purview.

So, I’ll use this opportunity to point out what questions CIOs should be asking about their enterprises based on what we can already discern from last week’s Southwest Airlines IT disaster.  

1. Are you investing enough in digital transformation?

Southwest Airlines recently announced a quarterly dividend that will pay out to shareholders starting Jan. 31 what amounts to $428 million a year. They also received $7 billion in pandemic aid and performed $5.6 billion in stock buybacks between 2017 and 2019.

And how much are they investing in their digital transformation? In 2017, Fast Company wrote that Southwest Airlines’ digital transformation “takes off” with an $800 million technology overhaul, but only $300 million was dedicated to new technology for operations.

The investment seems minuscule given that Southwest Airlines was a $33-$38 billion market capitalization airline in 2017. Its market cap has dropped significantly since then, but considering what’s being spent on buybacks and dividends, shouldn’t they have invested more to accelerate their transformation?

And that’s my question for CIOs: Are you investing enough in digital transformation? Do you have strong relationships with the other top executives and the board to raise the bar if your enterprise lags behind competitors or if legacy systems and technical debt pose a significant operational risk?

While CIOs must recession-proof their digital transformation priorities, underinvesting and slowing down can negatively affect customers, employees, and financial results. And if that doesn’t sway the executive committee, perhaps Southwest’s near 16% drop in stock price over December and the fear of having to respond to a federal investigation will get their attention.

2. What tools and protocols aid communications during a crisis?

According to CEO Jordan, Southwest does not have a quick, automated way to contact crew members who get reassigned. “Someone needs to call them or chase them down in the airport and tell them,” he said.

I’m having a hard time believing that Southwest, let alone any major enterprise, doesn’t have technologies and automated procedures to reach employees to inform them of operational changes. And during a crisis, organizations should have procedures outlined by human resources and supported by multiple technologies to reach employees, ensure their safety, and provide protocols to support operations.

Another key question is whether call centers are staffed and have scalable technologies to support a massive influx of calls and communications that often happen during a crisis. 

While we should all sympathize with customers impacted by a crisis, organization leaders must also consider employees and their well-being. Murray reported that pilots and crew waited hours to speak to staff about reassignments, and hundreds of pilots and crew members slept in airports next to passengers.

3. How quickly can you realign operations during a crisis?

Looking beyond operations, do leaders and managers have collaboration tools, real-time reporting dashboards, and forecasting machine learning models to aid in decision-making? How often do teams schedule tabletop exercises to play out what-if scenarios? Has IT invested or piloted a digital twin to help model operational changes and support decision-making during a crisis?

Southwest, like other airlines, relies on scheduling software to route pilots, crew, planes, and other equipment. But when things go wrong at a significant scale, relying on manual operations is highly problematic. “It requires a lot more human intervention and human eyesight or brainpower and can only handle so much,” said Brian Brown, president of Transport Workers Union Local 550, representing Southwest dispatchers and meteorologists

4. Is your organization learning from past failures?

This isn’t the first time Southwest Airlines canceled flights and blamed weather issues as one of the causes. They canceled over 1,800 flights over a weekend in 2021 that Southwest’s pilots’ union attributed to management’s “poor planning.”

All too often, you see organizations recover from a crisis, fix a few low-hanging issues, and go back to business as usual. The question for CIOs is whether they can use a crisis to demonstrate a strong enough business case around more holistic improvements.  

5. Does your organization have the culture to support software development?

Developing and maintaining proprietary software and customizations entails an ongoing commitment to talent development, product management disciplines, and DevOps practices. It requires prudent decision-making on what capabilities to invest in and when platforms have reached their end-of-life and require app modernizations.

SkySolver, the software Southwest uses for crew assignment, is a customized off-the-shelf software developed decades ago that the airlines customized. The software is at the root of Southwest’s delays in restoring operations, and I suspect the company’s IT leaders will now have the support to replace it.

Of course, no one wants to wait for a disaster to drive legacy modernizations, especially around complex operational systems. Too much urgency and stress can drive teams to select suboptimal partners, make costly architectural mistakes, or underinvest in scalability, quality, or security.

So the key question for CIOs is how they use this crisis to educate boards and executive committees on the fundamentals of agile software development and cloud operations. Many executives still believe that software development is a one-time investment, that maintenance budgets are discretionary, and that just moving to the cloud will solve IT infrastructure bottlenecks.  

CIOs know never to waste a good crisis to drive mindset changes. Using today’s headlines to ask the tough questions can be a catalyst for gaining new supporters and investment in digital transformation.

IT Leadership

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, airlines have struggled with bad weather, fewer air traffic controllers, and a shortage of pilots, all leading to an unprecedented number of cancelations in 2022. According to Reuters, more than 100,000 flights in the US were canceled between January and July, up 11% from pre-pandemic levels.

American Airlines, the world’s largest airline, is turning to data and analytics to minimize disruptions and streamline operations with the aim of giving travelers a smoother experience.

“Touchless, seamless, stressless. We’ve always had this vision, but it’s been hard to realize with the legacy systems and infrastructure we have,” says Maya Leibman, outgoing executive vice president and CIO of American Airlines. “As we modernize, we make more and more strides towards our vision. In the future, maybe airports will just be called Sky-Stops because, just like your average bus stop, they’ll require no more effort or stress than just simply showing up and getting on board.”

Leibman, who stepped down on Sept. 1 in favor of incoming Executive Vice President and Chief Digital and Information Officer (CDIO) Ganesh Jayaram, drove a major transformation of the 86-year-old airline to embrace data-driven decision-making.

“We have been on this transformation journey for a few years now, and prior to the pandemic we implemented a product mindset by restructuring our squads around our newly developed product taxonomy,” Leibman says. “This was a huge change for our teams. But because we had laid the foundation in 2019 for a product-oriented DevOps culture, we were able to pivot and reprioritize our work to quickly address pandemic-related customer issues, such as making it easier for customers to use travel credits from canceled flights.”

Leibman notes that American Airlines operates every hour of every day. It always has planes in the air around the world.

“We are an industry where our product is being consumed as it’s being produced,” she says. “The biggest challenge is turning that data into actionable insights that can be acted on easily and seamlessly in real-time in this 24-7-365 environment.”

Taking to the cloud

Luckily, Leibman has had an ace on her side. Poonam Mohan, vice president of corporate technology at American Airlines, oversees many of the airline’s AI and data analytics initiatives and has been fundamental to implementing Leibman’s vision.

Poonam Mohan, vice president of corporate technology, American Airlines

American Airlines

“We moved our major data platforms to the cloud and implemented data hubs for Customer and Operations,” Mohan says. “These systems allow real-time data from many of the massive moving parts of the world’s largest airline to be used not just for understanding how events affected us in the past, but rather allowing us to improve customer and operational outcomes as they happen.”

Mohan notes that her team simultaneously created DataOps frameworks that have improved the airline’s ability to ingest and consume new data sources in a matter of hours rather than weeks.

American Airlines has partnered with Microsoft to use Azure as its preferred cloud platform for its airline applications and key workloads. The partners are applying AI, machine learning, and data analytics to every aspect of the company’s operations, from reducing taxi time (thus saving thousands of gallons of jet fuel per year and giving connecting customers extra time to make their next flight) to putting real-time information at the fingertips of maintenance personnel, ground crews, pilots, flight attendants, and gate agents.

“When the pandemic started, all of a sudden we were canceling thousands of flights as travel bans were implemented. As a result, we were issuing a lot of refunds to customers who had their travel plans canceled because of the pandemic. To handle the incredible volume that our customer service agents were dealing with, we used machine learning and automated ingestion and processing to help with the volume and to get our customers their refunds processed faster,” Mohan explains by way of example.

When it comes to taxi times, an intelligent gating program deployed at the airline’s Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW) hub, is providing real-time analysis of data points such as routing and runway information to automatically assign the nearest available gate to arriving aircraft, reducing the need for manual involvement from gate planners. The program is currently reducing taxi time by about 10 hours per day.

The airline is migrating and centralizing its strategic operational workloads — including its data warehouse and several legacy applications — into one Operations Hub on Azure, which it says will help it save costs, increase efficiency and scalability, and progress toward its sustainability goals.

“We are focused on automation in every function of the company,” Mohan says. “Robotic process automation has allowed us to automate a large number of repetitive manual processes in Finance, Loyalty, Revenue Management, Reservations, and HR, just to name a few. Combining automation with machine learning for natural language processing is very effective in helping solve many customer-facing issues.”

The importance of culture

Mohan also notes that the company has just scratched the surface of how digital twin and AI can help its operations and enhance the customer travel experience. Two of its more recent ML programs, started this spring, include HEAT (short for Hub Efficiency Analytics Tool) and the aforementioned intelligent gating program.

HEAT has already played a key role during severe thunderstorm events. It analyzes multiple data points, including weather conditions, load factors, customer connections, gate availability, and air traffic control to help American Airlines adjust departure and arrival times on hundreds of flights in a coordinated way.

“So far, we’ve been pleased with the results as it has reduced the number of cancelations during a weather event,” Mohan says. “While customers may be delayed, we are able to get them to their destinations as opposed to canceling their flights.”

As for the intelligent gating program at DFW, Mohan says that in March American Airlines was able to save nearly two minutes per flight in taxi time, which totals 10 hours per day.

“We have reduced the instances where gate separation is more than 25 minutes by 50%,” she says. “This is directly related to the scenario we all have to face: Our flight actually arrives early but then we sit on the tarmac waiting for our gate to be cleared. Spreading the time out between when the previous flight leaves and when the next one arrives reduces that frustrating scenario.”

Mohan says the program has also helped the airline reduce the number of “close in” gate changes by 50%. These events are particularly annoying to customers who then have to hustle to a new location in the airport.

To drive all these changes throughout IT and the wider company has required building and maintaining the right culture. Leibman notes that she has an entire team dedicated to delivery transformation within the company. That team’s primary focus is to build the company’s culture around continuous learning and to engage business partners to adopt DevOps and product-based practices. Internally, they’ve developed an immersive coaching environment called “the Hangar,” to create space for product teams to work closely with coaches.

“We’ve also been building a developer experience platform, called Developer Runway, to create a frictionless experience for our developers to build and deliver applications,” Leibman says.

The platform enables teams to build and expose their services. Teams across the technology organization work directly with the Runway platform and the developer community is then able to leverage what is exposed on the platform to simplify their delivery experience.

“What is hard with a big company is that people like consistency, standards, and predictability, so processes get built around those things and it’s like a fence that prevents innovation,” Leibman says. “We can’t hire people and put them in a tiny pen because they’ll never achieve what we hired them for. As leaders, we need to have the judgment to understand that while we need standards and consistency, we can’t have it at the expense of people thinking their best thoughts, spreading their wings, and producing new, innovative approaches — not just to what we are doing but how we are doing it.”

Analytics, Digital Transformation, Travel and Hospitality Industry