A More Detailed Look at United’s ConnectionSaver

It’s been truly enjoyable watching United’s rise from the extended depths of merger hell, and the airline’s — though relatively minor in its impact — stands out as a visible hallmark of just how the airline has changed for the better. I spoke with Dave Kensick, Managing Director of Network Operations Control (NOC) to get more details on exactly how this program works.

The basic idea is quite simple. United wanted to automate the process of figuring out which flights to hold for connecting passengers. Up until now, it was using “connection planners” who sat in the NOC and used their brain power and experience to determine which flights to hold when connections were tight. The airline knew automation would help the airline to make a lot more passengers happy, so it went to work building the tool.

This was first tested out in Denver, a more simple hub in the sense that it’s largely a domestic connecting operation. In the early days, they ran a test versus the current manual system. The end result was that when looking at passengers with short connecting times, misconnects were reduced 30 percent. That’s a huge gain.

This was rolled out to Chicago in April. That added much more complexity. Not only was there a hub with a big international presence, but it’s a congested hub that is often going to be subject to ground delays/ground stops. It also has those nasty international inbounds that arrive at Terminal 5 sending domestic connecting passengers all the way back to Terminal 1. (And the train between the two still is down for service.) As Dave put it, they were trying to see if they’d break the tool. They didn’t.

United did make modifications after learning what O’Hare needed that Denver didn’t. Now the airline is ready to roll it out to Los Angeles by the end of the month. Houston will follow once they’re comfortable that Los Angeles is working well. Why does it take so long? Just as O’Hare has its quirks, every other hub has some as well. LAX, for example, has a lot of alleyway congested for airplanes pushing back and arriving, so United needs to consider that. The airline even puts people on the ground in the hub to evaluate and tweak as it ramps up.

How ConnectionSaver Works

The tool starts to run several hours before departure, and it runs frequently. It takes in all the flight and passenger details. (It even looks at people connecting to United from another airline’s delayed incoming flight.) It tries to successfully connect every passenger until it starts running up against the constraints that United programs. What are those constraints?

United wouldn’t give me the whole recipe for the secret sauce, but it did outline some of the things that are taken into account. The tool looks at hugely important issues like ensuring the pilots will have enough time to absorb the delay and still be legal to fly. It looks at airport curfews. There’s also a consideration of gate availability: will holding this airplane hurt people on an inbound flight that needs the gate? It will also look at downline connections. If a flight from Chicago is going to LA and a ton of people are connecting to Melbourne, then they won’t hold the airplane in Chicago and put that connection in jeopardy. It also considers expected flight times. Favorable winds = shorter flight time = more tolerance for holding.

This is all just the basic set-up, and it will evolve over time. Surprisingly, the tool doesn’t currently take into account the number of potential passengers missing a connection nor does it consider status levels or fare paid. There are plenty of additional variables that can be added to the system over time in order to refine the model and help more people.

In the end, the tool spits out a simple recommendation on whether to hold the airplane or not. The NOC can override that recommendation, and they sometimes might for large groups or issues with other extenuating circumstances. (Large groups apparently are flagged beforehand anyway.) But that’s a call made at headquarters.

At the airport, the gate agents are presented with a notification on the departure management screen and on mobile tools saying that the airplane can hold. For example, here’s what the agent would see for a flight to Fort Wayne that they’re willing to hold for four minutes past scheduled departure because it will still get there early.

The gate agents have a list of tight connections, and if those people make it by 11:45am, they’ll leave on time. If not, they can go over by four minutes, just enough time to let those last stragglers hopefully make it . But if they don’t, then they can’t hold any longer.

Because this is a fluid delay that may not even become a delay at all, it isn’t posted in flight status anywhere. You won’t know it’s happening from the outside.

The Stats

How has it been going so far? Since the beginning of the year — remember, only Denver had it operating in the first quarter — more than 15,000 people have made their connections thanks to this tool. But what’s most impressive is the impact on the operation, or lack thereof.

Only about 20 percent of flights that are held actually end up taking any departure delay at all, and the average delay is 6 minutes. In many cases, they are simply able to keep the door open a bit longer than usual and still push back on time. And of those flights that are delayed, only about half see an arrival delay since the other half make up enough time in the air. (In case you were wondering, checked bags haven’t impacted these numbers at all. The baggage coordinators know where to station bag runners in advance since they are connected in to the tool as well. The bags nearly always beat passengers to the plane.)

Here’s another interesting — but more concerning — stat. Of all the passengers for which United holds flights, only 90 percent of those make it on the airplane. What happens to the other 10 percent? Dave wants to know. Maybe they just assume they miss their flight and are going to a customer service counter. Or maybe something else is going on. But United is going to start playing with how it notifies people.

Customers today should get a regular connection email, but beginning this month in Denver, United will begin testing a “hurry up, we are holding your connection” note that will go to the traveler’s mobile to get them to make a run for it. They are hopeful that this will increase the percentage of people who make it.

Branding For the Win

Now, why is it that I say this is a great example of how different United is today? Isn’t that somewhat overstating this tool? Probably, but then again, not only did United have a team put together a great, customer-focused program, but it also had the smart idea to brand and market it at the right time. Usually the two sides don’t work well together. (Just look at how well Polaris was marketed WAY before it was ready.) This just feels like an airline with its divisions working together on the same team. At least that’s how it looks from the outside, and it’s a refreshing change.

Think about this from a Chicago perspective. In Terminal 1, you have United which has dramatically improved operational performance and is putting tools out there to make things even easier for passengers to make their connections. In Terminal 3, you have American which has seen its operational performance sag. It has also stubbornly stuck to this notion that airplanes must close doors early and depart on time at all costs. The internet is littered with stories of angry travelers. Is it a coincidence that United branded this and started talking about it once it got it working well in a competitive hub like O’Hare? I think not.

It helps when your competitor is going through a rough patch, but moves like this make it look like United is starting to step up. That, of course, is great news for the airline’s customers — more than 15,000 of them so far this year.

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