United Airlines gives employees the digital tools to make customers happy

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

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