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United Airlines draws from AWS and diverse tech team to overcome Covid-19 business challenges

United Airlines used the AWS Re:Invent keynote to set out how it has overcome the challenges of Covid-19 by drawing on the capabilities of its diverse tech team to oversee its move to the public cloud

United Airlines has revealed how turning its back on a multicloud strategy, while cultivating a diverse team dynamic, helped the American airline scale down and digitally transform its business during the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic.

The company is in the throes of a multi-year cloud migration effort, and confirmed that Amazon Web Services (AWS) is now its preferred cloud provider partner, during the tech giant’s annual Re:Invent customer and partner conference in Las Vegas this week.

During the opening keynote at Re:Invent, Linda Jojo, who serves as both executive vice-president for technology and chief digital officer at United Airlines, said the two firms began working together in February 2020, just before the pandemic prompted the world to go into lockdown.

“In 2019, we knew that our legacy platforms were becoming costly to operate, and we were really concerned that we weren’t going to be able to scale as the airline grew,” she said.

Moving to the cloud would be the way to address this, but the company needed to work out if it would be better off pursuing a multicloud strategy or settling on a single provider to meet all of its infrastructure and hosting needs.

“During all of our discussions, we kept coming back to the importance of resilience because any glitch in the smallest of our systems has the potential to cause a flight delay, and within minutes that can become a Twitter storm or – worse – hit the news cycle; so that meant choosing a single cloud provider,” she continued.

United quickly settled on using AWS, with Jojo citing the quality and breadth of its product portfolio, as well as the firm’s “continued pace of innovation”. And in February 2020, senior leaders from both firms met to discuss how Amazon’s cloud technologies could address the airline’s pain points.

However, United’s technology focus and investment priorities quickly changed once the pandemic took hold, as countries across the world began instigating travel bans to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus.

One thing that became immediately clear to the company as its passenger numbers dwindled was that its legacy technologies were not only incapable of scaling up, they were also impossible to scale down.

“There was one day in April 2020 [where] we had fewer passengers than pilots. We stopped all projects,” said Jojo. “To say it changed our focus would be an understatement.”

Suddenly, the firm had a new set of challenges it needed to overcome, while still needing to urgently overhaul its technology infrastructure.

A slice of pizza philosophy

The company subscribed to Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’s “two-pizza rule” philosophy, which advocates for the creation and use of small teams to help firms overcome any business problems they are coming up against.

However, in United’s case, the size of team it assembled was not dictated by how much pizza they would require to feel sated, but by how many of them could comfortably fit on video call, as stay-at-home orders meant the firm had to suddenly pivot to working remotely.

“Instead of a two-pizza team, we were a one-screen team, made up of no more than the number of video squares you can fit on your computer monitor,” said Jojo.

One of the first ideas the team came up with was the notion of creating a service within the United Airlines app that would help make it easier for passengers to negotiate the plethora of new rules and paperwork that emerged for international travel once the Covid-19 travel bans began to lift.

“Travel requirements continue to change, the forms vary by country,” said Jojo. “It’s complicated, it’s time-consuming and it’s incredibly complex.”

Linda Jojo
Linda Jojo gives her keynote at Re:Invent 2021

To address this issue, the digital team at United came up with the concept of the in-app Travel-Ready Centre, which is built on a mix of different AWS storage, compute, data analytics and machine learning technologies.

Travellers can use the app to access details on the Covid-19 testing and vaccine requirements for their destination, as well as upload their testing and vaccination records.

“We solved this incredibly quickly using Amazon Sagemaker, and it was significantly better than our own internally developed models,” said Jojo.

Amazon Sagemaker is a fully managed cloud-based machine learning platform that enables developers to create, train and deploy machine learning models.

“These models are continuing to improve, but we’ve automatically validated two-thirds of all documents and over 75% of all Covid test forms for more than four million customers,” said Jojo. “Customers love it. They get their boarding passes before they get to the airport…they don’t stop to get their documents checked. Our gate agents are ecstatic too.”

According to Jojo, United is the only airline in the world able to carry out these checks within its own mobile app, and the success of this project has led to other teams within its business exploring ways that they could use AWS to revamp their ways of working and cut costs.

Propelling innovation

The enforced slowdown in United’s business brought about by the pandemic gave it time for its teams to kick the tyres on AWS a little more, but also take a “little bit more risk” too.

“As a result, many of the technologies used by our employees and much of what our core customer-facing technology runs – over 100 applications in all – now run on AWS; up from a handful when the pandemic started,” she said.

“These [migrated] applications have a more intuitive user experience, and they have better operational instrumentation and better security. Our frontline teams love these new tools. These tools make it easier to assist our customers.

“They scale up and they scale down with passenger demand. And it’s definitely one of the reasons that our customer Net Promoter Score is up over 30 points [since the] start of the pandemic,” she continued.

While aligning with AWS for the purposes of digital transformation has played an important part in enabling the firm to respond as quickly as it did to the pandemic, so did having a “diverse and inclusive” team on hand to brainstorm and work though the business challenges it created.

“My team is non-traditional by airline standards, and maybe even by the standard technology team. Some 50% of my direct reports are women [and] 60% of my leadership team is diverse,” she said.

“Many of our teams come from the airline industry, but just as many come from other industries as well. So, [while] I want to leave you with an Amazon success story…I also want to remind you about the importance of working in an inclusive way.

“The results, particularly in a crisis, speak for itself. It’s why we believe so strongly that inclusion propels innovation, and we’re doing that together with AWS.”

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