At United Airlines, Jason Birnbaum aims for transformation without the turbulence

Airline customer service is instantaneous thanks to connected devices

By | 4 minute read | September 7, 2018

Jason Birnbuam is VP of operations technology at United Airlines.

This story is part of Big Thinkers, a series of profiles on business leaders transforming industries with bold ideas.

When Jason Birnbaum joined United Airlines as VP of operations technology in 2015, the airline was in the middle of a transformation. For years, United had been increasing the number of mobile devices available to its front-line employees. In 2011, the airline announced that 11,000 of its pilots would get iPads to replace paper flight manuals. In 2015, it began to rollout iPhones for their 23,000 flight attendants. The devices—more than 50,000 of them by 2017—were arriving in the workforce quickly. But United’s process of building applications for those devices wasn’t moving fast enough, Birnbaum told IBM. That’s because each app was essentially a bespoke creation with its own distinct design and user experience.

The transformation, in other words, had yet to prove truly transformative. Birnbaum wanted to change that. “My job was to help create a vision, align the team, and fulfill that promise that we all knew existed, which was that if we leveraged technology we could really create a competitive advantage for United,” he told IBM.

A true transformation

Last year, that promise got closer to reality when United announced it would partner with Apple and IBM to transform their application development and would use IBM’s Mobile at Scale for iOS model to quickly and efficiently design, develop, deploy and maintain a suite of new iOS apps for its employees. “We really looked at that partnership to make the apps more consistent, to accelerate them and enable a lot of sharing,” Birnbaum said.

Key to that acceleration, he said, was the development of a DevOps platform and the creation of a reusable library of code. “As we built more code in the code library, each piece of functionality was less expensive to create. As the cost of the applications went down and success had been proven, it was easier and easier to justify,” he said. Additionally, the United team focused on engaging its front-line employees throughout the entire development and deployment journey. Their input helped inform the design of each application. Users, as a result, felt true ownership of the final product.

“It’s had a really positive impact on our employees in terms of their understanding of our commitment to them. It’s allowed them to feel confident in engaging our customers in a lot of different situations, and ultimately our customers get their service more quickly and more effectively,” Birnbaum said.

United Airlines is building enterprise apps with the help of IBM to transform how United employees engage with customers.

The mobile employee

Across the organization, Birnbaum said, United employees are able to do their jobs more efficiently than they were just a year ago.

Onboard, flight attendants are using mobile devices to perform retail transactions and resolve customer care issues in-the-moment. In airports, gate agents are changing seat assignments and checking bags with their devices, and using the freedom of portable computers to help customers wherever and whenever they need assistance. “If you think of a situation where customers need assistance at the airport, the biggest constraint is the number of terminals. People line up behind those two terminals,” he said. “In a world where every employee has a mobile device, more people can help and respond quickly to customers. They can step out from behind the podium.”

Airplane technicians are enjoying a similar kind of freedom with their devices, Birnbaum said. “In the old world, if a plane needed maintenance attention, the way it would work is the technician would have to go to the plane, figure out what’s going on, walk back to the base, get manuals, go back to the plane, figure out what parts they need, go back to the terminal, order parts, go back to the plane, and then fix the plane,” he said. “Now they can do all that without leaving the plane.”

Changing expectations

A lot of companies have been eager to provide great mobile experiences for customers. But it’s taken longer for them to get excited about providing those kinds of experiences for employees. Now the tide is changing as customer expectations shift. Today’s customers, Birnbaum said, expect employees to solve problems “in the same real-time mobile manner in which they solve problems themselves.”

United isn’t the only airline to catch on to the new normal. In 2016, Finnair announced it would work with IBM to develop apps for its employees. Singapore Airlines announced a similar partnership last year. But for Birnbaum, the decision to create enterprise apps wasn’t about following trends. Instead, it was simply about making United employees more efficient at their jobs—and ultimately, making United customers happier.

“We wanted to enable our employees to be more efficient with what they do every day and be more connected with each other,” he said. “And we didn’t want to spend five years doing it.”