United Airlines: Big Data to the Rescue of the Passenger Experience?


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It’s hard to believe it has been seven months since United Airlines faced the first of three monumental customer experience debacles. Here’s a walk down that pothole-riddled memory lane:

  • January 22nd all domestic flights were grounded for 2.5 hours due to a problem with a computer system that provides technical information to pilots.
  • February 8th was the delay of approximately 500 flights due to a computer glitch.
  • April 11th was the forcible ejection of Dr. David Dao after he boarded a plane in Chicago en route to Louisville, Kentucky.

A Shared Challenge

In fairness, other airlines have faced similar flight delays due to computer-related “glitches” during the same time frame. United, however, has become emblematic of an industry viewed as operationally challenged, uncaring, and not customer-centric.

Given the time I spend on planes traveling to speak and consult, I have a fairly positive view of the airline industry. My perspective likely varies greatly from someone who travels only during peak holiday periods or who watches the same customer-experience disaster video repeatedly. My view is also colored by the work I’ve done with very dedicated customer experience professionals within the airline industry.

Overbooking and United’s Technology Initiatives

Recently in a Wall Street Journal article, Linda Jojo, United executive vice president of technology and chief digital officer provided insights on some of the strategies United is deploying to improve the customer experience (particularly as it relates to that pernicious issue of overbookings.) Like many CX improvement efforts across industries, United is exerting sizable effort leveraging big data. As Linda notes:

The vast majority of [overbooking situations] are due to some kind of operational disruption that causes us potentially to fly a slightly different plane than the one we had planned. … That could happen fairly close to the time of departure.

The biggest thing we do from technology is help run the airline better [in those situations]. How do we help with anticipating issues so that if we do see a thunderstorm, we can help with proactively rescheduling and talking to customers about the fact that weather could disrupt their travel? If we can get to people early so they can change their travel plans, that’s one of the biggest things we do.

Data Mining and Analytics

In the WSJ article, Linda highlights several data points United is mining in hopes of anticipating, quickly adjusting, and more rapidly communicating with consumers. This data includes precisely watching overbooked flights and the check-in/airport arrival behavior of customer segments. Linda notes:

We know that people flying between two business locations on a Monday morning are probably going to show up. We know people who are flying to a resort location are probably going to show up. But there’s a certain percentage of people who don’t set their alarm right, or hit traffic and don’t make that early-morning flight. We also know the last flight of the day, everybody’s there to get back to their city. So what we’re doing is helping further refine the analytics to understand which flights have a higher probability of no-shows.

United Airlines reportedly is focused on ten high priority customer experience initiatives many of which involve big-data or technology interventions (biometrics, mobile app improvements, etc.). The success of these initiatives will likely be proven through traveler perceptions, the absence of viral United customer trauma videos, and improved brand reputation.

Data Plus People

United, like most other brands pursuing a transformative and differentiated customer experience, will have to marry their technology initiatives with improvements in human care delivery. Take the case of Dr. Dao’s removal from the Louisville flight as an example. Better data analytics might have averted the crisis, but a more humane response could have also prevented the bloody scene from dominating the news cycle.

A study by the Institute of Customer Service (ICS) showed that staff attitude is among the most “annoying or frustrating” components of experience delivery and accounts for 62% of customer complaints.

In my humble opinion, big data will greatly improve customer experiences but it can’t and won’t solve for the other important contributor to the equation – the actions of people!

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Joseph Michelli, Ph.D.
Joseph Michelli, Ph.D., an organizational consultant and the chief experience officer of The Michelli Experience, authored The New Gold Standard: 5 Leadership Principles for Creating a Legendary Customer Experience Courtesy of The Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company and the best-selling The Starbucks Experience: 5 Principles for Turning Ordinary Into Extraordinary.


  1. Unlike the recently reported instance of a Southwest Airlines customer service staffer going far out of her way to help a passenger with cancer get the luggage with her meds, no amount of data sophistication will serve to alter United Airlines’ employee culture – – unless, along with greater data sophistication, United makes this a corporate priority.

  2. hhhmmm, I would think that any data driven strategies that UA – or any other company – could employ, will not help in improving customer experience unless there is a corporate culture that bases on the thought that customer experience is what can make a company a winner. And United surely doesn’t have a data problem …

    Also, working on the technology is working on the bit that needs to follow strategy. Is there a visible strategy of delivering a consistently positive experience?

  3. Thomas, we are cut from the same cloth on our views on this topic! Strategy and culture lead – tools follow!


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