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A Glimpse of How United Airlines Managed Winter Storm Mateo

Despite adverse weather conditions, the airline's Chicago operation was largely unaffected.

Three of United Airlines’ U.S. hubs were slammed by adverse weather on Friday yet the airline’s plan for handling it went pretty much as planned. Its Network Operations Center (NOC) at the airline’s Willis Tower headquarters in Chicago is key to that success. It’s completion rate was 83% as of mid-afternoon.

As Winter Storm Mateo prepared to sweep across the Rockies and Midwest on Friday, the NOC team of specialists, who proactively monitor the airline’s mainline and regional aircraft flights worldwide—including the crew, cargo, maintenance, weather, ATC and reservations issues—prepared for irregular operations.

United employs inhouse meteorologists who provide forecasts five days out, but it’s about 48 hours before a storm looks likely that the ops center starts planning and talking with the affected stations, says Jim DeYoung, VP network operations. By 24 hours before, United launches its operational strategy and starts cancelling flights.

“Having inhouse meteorologists and ATC specialists in the room makes all the difference,” says DeYoung, because “we can make course corrections pretty quickly.” United wants to avoid reactive cancellations.

“We really try to limit cancelling flights two to four” before the scheduled departure, says DeYoung.

Because it was confident in its snow forecast, it started cancelling flights 24 hours in advance of the storm. It had cancelled 25 of its mainline operations and 418 Express by mid-afternoon and had to add a few more at Chicago O’Hare that night because getting aircraft deiced and off the ground was slow.

To prepare for the winter storm, 100 NOC employees stayed in hotel rooms in downtown Chicago and the airline brought food in so ensure no irregular operations of its own.

Large screens in the NOC display various components of its real-time operation—from flights to social media and arrival and departure rates at each of its hubs.

But why is ICN found on its giant Consolidated Hub Status screen in the NOC? It’s not a UAL hub, but United Airline is the official airline of the U.S. Olympic Committee and wants to make sure it’s delivering the athletes and their gear on time.

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