How United Airlines Employs AI to Elevate the Friendly Skies Experience

How United Airlines Employs AI to Elevate the Friendly Skies Experience


From chatbots to pilot announcements, artificial intelligence (AI) is gaining momentum in various aspects of airline operations. When boarding a United Airlines flight, behind the scenes, gate agents, flight attendants, and other personnel are often coordinating tasks in a chatroom to ensure a smooth departure, addressing concerns like carry-on space availability, catering logistics, and seating arrangements for families.


In the event of a flight delay, passengers receive timely updates via text and the United app, with many of these messages being generated by AI algorithms. Concurrently, dispatchers worldwide utilize real-time data to ensure compliance with FAA regulations and crew legality. Recently, United implemented an AI-powered customer service chatbot to enhance passenger assistance.


How United Airlines Employs AI to Elevate the Friendly Skies Experience


Jason Birnbaum, United’s Chief Information Officer (CIO) since 2022, oversees a team of over 1,500 employees and approximately 2,000 contractors responsible for the airline’s technological infrastructure. Birnbaum, with a background at GE, where he held various leadership roles, understands the criticality of technology in the airline industry, where even minor disruptions can trigger widespread attention on social media and news outlets.


Before joining United, Birnbaum held senior roles at GE, including CIO of GE Consumer and Industrial and GE Healthcare Global Supply Chain. At United, he spearheaded digital initiatives like Connection Saver, utilizing AI and machine learning to optimize flight connections and minimize passenger inconvenience.


Exploring the application of AI in airline operations, including United’s innovative strategies, is a key focus for Birnbaum and other CIOs in global enterprises. However, United is also prioritizing cloud migration efforts, reflecting a broader industry trend of optimizing cloud infrastructure to enhance efficiency and reduce costs.


“I’m starting to see these companies and startups that are focused on optimizing cloud management,” Birnbaum explained. “They’re asking questions like, ‘Can we store your data more efficiently?’ or ‘Can we help you monitor your new applications better?’ Because traditional tools are becoming obsolete. Perhaps the era of digital transformation has ended, and we’ve entered the age of cloud optimization.”


United Airlines has made significant investments in the cloud, particularly AWS, as its preferred cloud provider. Accordingly, United is exploring avenues to optimize its cloud usage, emphasizing cost-effectiveness and reliability. This involves enhancing developer productivity, incorporating automation, and embracing DevOps practices. Birnbaum emphasized, “While we have an established presence in the cloud, we’re continuously striving to optimize further.”


However, ensuring reliability remains paramount. Despite the airline industry’s reliance on legacy systems, United is cautious about disrupting its operations. Birnbaum stressed, “We’re proceeding with caution to avoid operational disruptions or self-inflicted setbacks.” United has already migrated and decommissioned many legacy systems, with ongoing efforts to modernize. Later this year, the company plans to retire a significant Unisys-based system.


Birnbaum anticipates that United will maintain on-premises systems alongside cloud solutions to prioritize application performance, privacy, and security. He emphasized the importance of placing applications and user experience at the forefront of decision-making.


Despite operational complexities, United does not envision creating a unified United Platform to manage all systems. According to Birnbaum, the diverse nature of airline operations necessitates specialized platforms for different functions, such as reservations, ticketing, bag tracking, and crew assignments.


In instances of operational issues, seamless integration and real-time collaboration among systems are imperative. Hence, United Airlines places its trust in a single cloud provider. Birnbaum explained, “I don’t foresee us adopting a singular platform. Instead, we aim to excel in interconnecting systems and facilitating communication among applications.”


Practically, this translates to the team’s ability to monitor various aspects in real-time, such as the arrival of caterers and passenger check-ins. Ground teams and flight attendant crews can access this information through the internal chat application, ensuring streamlined coordination and responsiveness across departments.


Every flight has an AI story

While United continues its ongoing initiatives, the airline is also exploring the optimal utilization of artificial intelligence (AI).


Birnbaum highlighted that AI discussions have permeated the boardroom, reflecting a broader trend across large enterprises. He emphasized that United had already developed a robust AI practice, focusing on model management and tuning. However, the arrival of ChatGPT catalyzed a shift in attention towards AI from top-level executives, prompting a deeper exploration of its potential applications.


United is particularly enthusiastic about AI’s prospects in the travel industry, citing numerous opportunities to enhance both customer experiences and employee efficiency. One notable initiative is United’s “Every flight has a story” campaign, which seeks to provide comprehensive explanations for flight delays, departing from traditional notification systems.


Previously, flight delay notifications often lacked contextual information, leaving passengers uninformed about the underlying reasons. United addressed this issue by deploying agents to craft informative notices sent via the app and text messages. Now, leveraging data from its chat application and other sources, the majority of delay messages are generated by AI algorithms.


Furthermore, United is considering the integration of generative AI to summarize flight information for its operations teams, facilitating quick insights into ongoing events and enhancing operational efficiency.


Just a few weeks ago, United completed the transition of its chat system on to an AI agent. While initial testing revealed some limitations, Birnbaum views this as a promising beginning for the platform’s evolution.


How United Airlines Employs AI to Elevate the Friendly Skies Experience




Despite past incidents, such as Air Canada’s AI bot occasionally providing incorrect responses, Birnbaum remains confident in United’s approach. The AI bot relies on United’s knowledge base, mitigating the risk of inaccuracies. Birnbaum perceives such incidents not as technology failures but as opportunities to improve customer service, noting that human agents also occasionally provide incorrect answers.


United is gearing up to launch a tool dubbed “Get Me Close” later this year. This tool aims to address the common scenario where customers facing delays are open to switching to a nearby airport. Birnbaum recounted a personal experience where United rerouted him to Amsterdam when his flight to Berlin was canceled, highlighting the potential for flexible travel options. He emphasized the importance of human interactions in building optionality for travelers and sees AI as a valuable tool in facilitating such interactions.


AI for pilots?

Following the success of implementing generative AI technology to automate delay “stories” in the app, Birnbaum’s team is exploring additional applications for the same technology. One potential area of application is pre-flight briefings, typically delivered by pilots before takeoff.


An insightful suggestion from a pilot sparked interest in utilizing AI to assist pilots, particularly those who may struggle with extemporaneous announcements. Recognizing the significance of pilot-passenger interactions in customer satisfaction, United has been proactive in enhancing these interactions. This initiative aligns with the airline’s focus on improving its Net Promoter score by encouraging pilots to provide informative announcements, even during delays.


The potential for generative AI to aid pilots extends beyond pre-flight announcements. Birnbaum envisions AI assisting pilots in summarizing complex technical documents. However, given the structured and regulated nature of tasks involving pilot flight operations, United anticipates a gradual approach to implementing AI in such critical areas. While exploring opportunities for improvement, the airline remains committed to preserving pilots’ ability to personalize announcements, ensuring a balance between automation and human touch.




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

error: Content is protected !!