Here's How United Runs Its Massive Operations in Houston
Think there's only one "Mission Control" room in Houston? Well, no. You can find a very similar 24/7 year-round operation run by United Airlines at Houston's George Bush Intercontinental Airport. In fact, while commercial airlines may not (yet) take passengers to space, there are airline command rooms quite similar to NASA's at major airports all over.
When you experience a flight that has last-minute gate changes, rolling delays and maintenance issues, you might feel like an airline is simply winging it, so to speak. But the reality is very different. To see just how an airline, in this case United Airlines, gets its passengers from Point A to Point B during this peak holiday travel season, we went behind the scenes at its Station Operations Center at IAH, to see what is really going on behind closed doors. From here, United manages its 500 flights a day out of the airport.
Airlines Have Their Own "Mission Control"
We may live in a digital, hyper-connected world, but it is still helpful to have the people in charge together in one room, especially when things start to go wrong. While major airlines have a national operations center at their headquarters where they may house shared resources, such as meteorologists, you will also find smaller-scale operations centers that are still quite sophisticated at hubs.
At United's SOC at IAH, there are dozens of departments represented by real humans. This includes basically all essential departments and resources such as gate assignments, food servicing, fueling, a "move team" that repositions aircraft around the airport, in-flight, connections services to get passengers where they need to be, baggage services, wheelchair assistance, maintenance and beyond. Sure, they may communicate with each other via Skype for much of the day, but when they need a quick face-to-face conversation, they are just a few feet away from each other.
In addition to the individual department representatives in the room and monitoring real-time information on their screens, the various airport gates also have a person in the room in charge of all of their potential needs. At IAH, the gates are divided into clusters of six to 15, grouped based on location. The number of gates in each group depends on the gates' needs and use frequency. For example, in the image below one person is in charge of gates C39 to C45, which are very heavily utilized mainline gates.
Routine logistics and issues are handled within the zones and departments when possible, but escalated to the boss, the operations manager, who sits at the far side of the room, when needed.
Plan, Plan, Plan and Then React
A recurring theme during my afternoon tour with United was that advance planning is, by far, the preferential way to deal with issues rather than reacting. For peak holiday travel weeks to go as smoothly as possible, the key is in the preparation that is often invisible to passengers.
As we walked the terminals at IAH on the eve of a peak holiday travel date, I was shown examples where domestic gates were staffed up with three employees instead of the usual two to keep things moving. International flights were staffed up from three to four gate agents. Supervisors, whom you may not always notice while focusing on your luggage, gate and bags, were seen roaming the airport looking for ways to assist.
If a flight or flights in a specific terminal are suffering significant delays, customer service reps from other parts of the airport can be quickly and quietly shifted to that zone. If winter weather is expected, deicing starts ramping up to be ready several days in advance of the situation. Behind the scenes, the airlines are not just looking at today. They are simultaneously planning for the future to avoid as many customer interruptions as possible. As was said to me in the SOC, "When customers have a problem, we have a problem, and we don't want problems."
Decisions Are Made Quickly
Of course, with so many variables at play, stuff happens. In the US, roughly one out of five flights suffers a delay of some sort. The folks working in the airline SOCs can look at a developing situation and within seconds make a decision regarding what needs to happen next. For example, if a request is made to hold a flight for more passengers to make that connection, the person in charge of the gates can look at their real-time screen of current and future gate assignments and determine if that is feasible, or if it would cause cascading problems and delays.
Or if an aircraft is coming in with, say, 30 or 40 passengers connecting on to to another flight, they will try and park those two aircraft close to one another if possible.
When Flights Get Held and When They Don't
Speaking of which, sometimes a department in the SOC will advocate for a plane to be held for connecting passengers. While the decision is made quickly, it isn't always simple. Not only do they have to look at impact on the gate assignments, but they also must factor in if the crew on the aircraft will be at risk of timing-out (reaching the limit of the hours they can work that day), how this affects any scheduled maintenance for the plane later that day, potential onward connections, etc. Planes can and do get held for connecting passengers when possible, but if it will create more problems than it solves, the SOC has to make a hard call and start reaccommodating passengers who will miss their next connection if it just can't wait.
The Airline Says: "Don't Wait in Line for Help"
If advance preparation was the main theme of the day for the operations side of the airline's operation, the mantra on the customer service side was that you truly do not usually have to wait in line for help or information.
Thanks to the SOC communicating with the "Flight Storytellers" at the National Operations Center in Chicago (yes, that's their official title), you can find out exactly why your United flight is delayed in the app without asking a human.
If you are one of the unlucky people who need alternate flights at some point, the airline wants you to check the app for that, too. I was told that "99% of the time," passengers traveling on a wholly United itinerary are rebooked virtually instantly without human intervention when things go wrong. Before waiting in a line with 100+ other passengers to get new flights, check the app or a kiosk in the airport: you may already have a new flight assignment. If the flight options presented don't work for you, it is time to seek out a human, either at a gate or a customer service center.
The trickier scenarios are when a customer is connecting on tickets involving other airlines, especially those outside of Star Alliance, the global grouping of carriers that United is a member of with Air Canada, Lufthansa, Singapore Airlines and many others. Those situations do require a human.
Another handy tip involves hotel accommodations in the event of a delay or cancellation that lasts overnight. When possible, United says it hands out letters instructing stranded passengers on how they can book their own reasonably priced hotels and claim reimbursement later if they don't want to wait for a specific voucher. So, if you just gotta bail with your kids to get some sleep ASAP and can't wait for any assistance, you can still claim your reasonable expenses later on — assuming the situation was within the control of the airline (i.e., mechanical) and not weather-related. In those significant weather delay situations, you would need to rely on the coverage of the credit card you used to book the trip.
There Are Spare Aircraft, Sort Of
Back on the operations side, I was told that one of the SOC's first thoughts when facing a delay due to aircraft issues is probably the same as yours as a passenger: Is there a spare? At a hub, the answer is, maybe.
I wasn't given a firm number, but one, or two or potentially three available and ready-to-fly aircraft at IAH sounded within the range of possibility for United. Note that this doesn't mean that all of these aircraft are literally just waiting around with nothing to do all day, but more likely they might be in for scheduled maintenance that can be rescheduled if necessary. Just because there is an aircraft avaialble also doesn't guarantee it could substitute for the exact aircraft type on which you were originally scheduled, though we certainly have seen different aircraft types sub in at times.
The First Flights of the Day Set the Tone
To avoid delays, you may have heard the advice to take the first flight of the day. Turns out, that's good advice. All flights are important but we learned that at IAH the first 35 departures of the day set the tone, so there is extra emphasis to get those out the door correctly. The batting average for those, I was told, is over 90%, with some days ringing in a perfect score. It certainly helps that the crew is likely starting their days with that flight, the aircraft are already on the ground and have been refueled while most of us were sleeping.
Yes, Some Flights Are More Protected Than Others
While we were on the topic of confirming or myth-busting long-held frequent flyer beliefs with the actual people who make the decisions during irregular operations, I asked if some flights are more protected from delays and cancellations than others. This is, of course, assuming it comes down to a choice whether some flights will go and others will not.
In short: Yes, some flights will be given more priority than others since the impact of delaying or canceling them is greater on the whole. For example, if you are in Houston and plan to fly to Newark on an internationally-configured aircraft that will then continue on to Europe, you are on a pretty protected flight that will go if at all possible. Not only does it likely have more people onboard than a smaller aircraft, but there will simply be fewer good reaccommondation options for those who need to get to Europe that night. And the airline isn't just looking at today. If that flight doesn't make it to Europe, that would also mean fewer options for those waiting there to return to the US on that aircraft tomorrow.
When Things Really, Really Go Wrong
At IAH, the SOC is staffed 365 days a year. But what happens on days when things are really bad or unusual? For those purposes, there is a nearby Emergency Operations Center (EOC) also within the airport that is ready to go at a moment's notice. As just one example, this room was used during recent hurricane operations. Here in the EOC, essential departments can work even more closely together, both with each other and the headquarters in Chicago.
During the end-of-year holidays, US air carriers will serve more than 2.5 million people per day, with many of the logistics handled at operations center similar to this one. At TPG, our fingers are crossed your holiday flights will be o time and uneventful, but if they aren't, rest assured that there are many eyes and ears located behind the scenes, focused on fixing the problem.
Images by the author except where indicated otherwise.