Cloud Native/NFV

How United Airlines Uses Data to Take Pain out of Flight Delays

SAN DIEGO -- Tibco Now -- Flight delays are inevitable, but United Airlines is using application data to take the pain away for its passengers.

United uses its internal applications to make delays less unpleasant for passengers -- even sending luxury cars to meet very high-value passengers at their arrival gate and shuttle them to departure gates. Other passengers might get free WiFi, dinner or entry to the airline club to cushion the pain of delays.

Michael Schuman, United senior manager for IT applications development and operations data enablement, described how the company integrates its flight information at a session at the Tibco Now conference here this week.

Photo by Lasse Fuss (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
Photo by Lasse Fuss (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

"Anytime anything changes, something related to the flight, takeoff, delay, or something like a gate change -- all of those things get sent into our system, and we put them out in real time," Schuman says.

The challenge: United was getting inconsistent flight information -- which it calls FLIFO -- from eight or nine different sources. Sometimes, customers knew about flight data before gate agents did.

To solve that problem, United is using Tibco Software Inc. (Nasdaq: TIBX) technology to integrate data from multiple sources and feed it into the airline mobile app for consumers, as well as its internal operational apps, airline displays and other information channels.

The airline consolidated multiple sources of flight information from its legacy apps to a unified platform built on Tibco, Schuman said. Every application that requires United and United Express flight data receives it from this single source. A total of 230 clients consume accurate and timely flight information in the form of events and services.

Customers can get flight information from many channels, including real-time alerts on mobile or text. The same core business events are used for operational applications and customer channels. Status fields are continually updated in client apps, including estimated time of departure and arrival, gate changes and baggage claim, Schuman said.

United's Michael Schuman
United's Michael Schuman

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Delays kick off an array of actions to help customers. Premier passengers get those luxury cars. Meanwhile, a team of experts works on providing compensation at various levels, including amenity carts dispatched to gates for passengers waiting for delayed flights, based on triggers from the UFLIFO system. UFLIFO also provides flight data for STAR Alliance members and other partner airlines.

Data originates in mainframe and third-party apps, and is piped through to Tibco BusinessEvents 5.3, which reacts to business events by triggering predefined rules; BusinessWorks 5.13 to integrate applications and data sources; and ActiveSpaces 2.2, a peer-to-peer in-memory data grid or virtual shared memory, Schuman says. United uses a continuously available architecture within a data center, with two synced clusters on the data grid to ensure the company always has a backup, with no outages during cutover and maintenance. The feed goes to a variety of clients, including mainframe systems, customer devices and operational applications.

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Joe Stanganelli 10/27/2017 | 8:17:04 AM
Airlines and hospitals This is the quintessential problem of big data -- managing, analyzing, and acting on all off your data from your data sources. Good to see airlines getting into the 21st century.

And, of course, the airlines are not alone. This is very reminiscent of a conversation I had with a healthcare exec at a conference a few years ago. He told me of a time a couple of decades before when he was conducting clinical research with patient data, and discovered that the best source for the many holes in the data that he had was the billing department (of course!). From there, he worked to integrate clinical data sources with billing-department data on patients.
Phil_Britt 10/27/2017 | 9:16:02 AM
More Helpful Data A few years ago, United was also providing location-based data for customers at O'Hare to help them find gates, washroom, restaurants and other important things at the airport. Helpful for passengers, though I don't know if it added to the airline's bottom line.
Joe Stanganelli 10/27/2017 | 12:14:45 PM
Re: More Helpful Data @Phil: Well, I guess anything to help counteract negative customer sentiment...and United sure has had quite a bit of that.
Phil_Britt 10/27/2017 | 12:36:49 PM
Re: More Helpful Data Though United has plenty of negative sentiment (we fly Southwest whenever we can), it is the only carrier servinv many cities. Though there was overcapacity in the industry, in my humble opinion, too many mergers were permitted, giving all of the power to the airlines and leaving the consumer dealing with terrible customer service.
Susan Fourtané 10/28/2017 | 6:40:06 AM
Re: More Helpful Data Phil, it was not always that way about United. There was a time when United was a great airline, offering great customer service, and overall a great experience ”flying the freindly skies.”
Phil_Britt 10/28/2017 | 8:25:38 AM
Re: More Helpful Data I worked security at United back in the mid 1970s. Then, it and other airlines generally had good reputations. But the mergers have put the airlines in the power position and passengers are often treated as nuisances. And United isn't the only one.
Susan Fourtané 10/28/2017 | 8:42:08 AM
Re: More Helpful Data How interesting, Phil. It was more after the mid 90s that I believe United was better positioned, perhaps better managed?
Phil_Britt 10/28/2017 | 8:57:02 AM
Re: More Helpful Data Pre-merger, the passengers had the power, and from a business standpoint, likely too much, as the airlines were bleeding money. While some mergers were certainly warranted, when there are so many that there's no consumer choice any more (for many destinations, not just tiny, rural ones), there have been too many combinations.
Susan Fourtané 10/28/2017 | 9:16:11 AM
Re: More Helpful Data Too many combinations is never a good idea, I believe. Why did you leave security?
Phil_Britt 10/28/2017 | 9:19:14 AM
Re: More Helpful Data It was basic security (no guns), we ran xray machines at airport when they first came out. The same company provided ushers at the ballpark. It was basically a high-school/early college job. Would never have paid the bills -- kind of like journalism today :)
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