Design the future: An interview with Steven Boliek, Senior Manager of Ops Strategy and Automation at United Airlines

“The integration of airports and airlines is essential to the customer experience, ensuring it’s not just efficient but also enjoyable from the moment a passenger arrives at the airport until they reach their destination.” Steven Boliek

Valentin Bléhaut

Steven Boliek, a manager of strategy and operations at United Airlines, joins Valentin Bléhaut, a product management director at Designit, to delve into the dynamics of the aviation industry. From United Airline’s post-pandemic evolution to the relationship between airlines and airports and customer-centric strategies for sustainable growth, the conversation offers a glimpse into the challenges and opportunities for the future of aviation.

Steven, can you shed some light on your role at United Airlines and your perspective on the industry?

I've been with United Airlines for seventeen years primarily dedicated to operations, strategy, and innovation. My current role revolves around airport and network operations, and I focus on enhancing operational efficiency through innovative products, team strategies, organisational structure, and process development.

Having worked on the operations side of airports myself, I understand the day-to-day procedures and hurdles that our stakeholders are often faced with. One significant challenge is data. Historically, United has had a strong focus on data collection, but how we utilise the data to help our internal teams make decisions and pull operational levers is a continuous improvement effort. Improving the internal user experience – and in turn, enhancing our passenger experience – has been one of my primary areas of focus over the last several years.

The past year seems like it's been one of the most ‘normal’ since the pandemic. What's the general sentiment in the industry right now?

United took a bold stance during the pandemic by implementing an aggressive growth strategy and betting on what we believed was going to be a major return to demand in the industry, which proved true. While leisure travel saw a pretty immediate post-pandemic surge, we're also witnessing the steady return of business travellers. A major focus for us now is operational efficiency and meeting the demands of growth through automation and new products.

It's been a challenging yet transformative time for the industry. We've had to adapt quickly to changing circumstances, but it's also presented plenty of opportunities for innovation and growth.

Let’s dive into the airport/airline ecosystem and the interplay between the two. How do airports and airlines work together?

It’s all about understanding each other's roles and finding ways to support one another. Data sharing between airports and airlines is particularly crucial here. As an airline, we have a regulatory responsibility to handle passenger data safely and make sure it doesn't get into the wrong hands. When a passenger buys a ticket, they’re signing up for a contract wherein their data is protected, and we take that very seriously.

While we keep individual passenger data very secure, we can leverage aggregate data to better determine passenger volume, which is one of the areas where our relationships with airports come in. Airports have a lot of aggregated data, and their willingness to share it has helped us build and grow these important relationships.

What defines the role of the airport versus the airline in the customer experience?

One of the biggest differences between airports and airlines is that airlines prioritise seamless passenger transit, while airports aim to ensure comfort and convenience, especially during irregular operations (IRROPS). Because United operates with a strong customer-centric philosophy, one of the downsides for airports is that we are helping our passengers feel so informed that sometimes it means they spend less time in the airport. For example, if a passenger knows ahead of time that their flight will be delayed, they might show up at the airport later than they would have had they not been informed so proactively.

As an airline, I believe it’s ultimately our responsibility to get you to your destination. At the end of the day, passengers remember their positive or negative flying experience on an airline – and even if it played a part in their experience, they don’t necessarily attribute their positive or negative feelings to the airport they travelled through.

What does a good airline/airport relationship look like?

Over my career, I’ve seen that things work best when both the airport and the airline feel responsible for the customer experience. So, I always take the stance that being proactive and overly communicative is what allows us to establish effective processes and manage IRROPS seamlessly together. Effective collaboration means we are in constant communication, especially during IRROPS, where we might be dealing with many challenges like inclement weather, technical problems, security issues, crew logistics, and so on.

Airports need to align with airlines to ensure timely updates and facilitate staffing adjustments to manage demand spikes effectively. Maintaining open communication channels is key. When both parties are proactive and transparent, it leads to smoother operations and better experiences for passengers.

Customer needs and preferences are constantly evolving. How do you work to meet and exceed passenger expectations?

It’s incredibly important that we adapt quickly to changing patterns and preferences. For instance, United implemented ‘Agent on Demand’, which lets passengers connect with remote agents seamlessly through a QR code or an app for real-time assistance. It has been a game-changer in elevating our passenger support during disruptions. By leveraging technology, we're able to provide proactive assistance to passengers, letting them skip legacy processes and offering faster support during delays or disruptions.

Shifting from reactive to predictive staffing models has also been essential for effectively managing demand spikes. It enables us to predict anticipated demand patterns and allocate resources more effectively. Utilising weather forecasts and passenger data lets us make decisions quicker, often in real-time, which ultimately means we can optimise crew and aircraft deployment to minimise disruptions for passengers.

What does a best-in-class passenger experience look like?

Well, if you're asking me personally, I like spending time in airports – but I recognise that most people do not. As an airline we want the overall experience to be as frictionless as possible. That doesn't necessarily mean offering the least number of face-to-face interactions imaginable, but it does mean offering passengers the choice wherever we can. People who prefer to communicate directly with a human can still do that, and people who prefer to have minimal face-to-face interaction until they board the aircraft can do that, too.

A lot of people like the virtual experience, and it also alleviates some of the pressure on airline agents, whose time is freed up to assist passengers with more complicated challenges. On the other hand, some passengers really don’t want to download an app, they’d prefer to print something at home and get checked in face-to-face just like they’re used to. So, while we have that service available for people who want or need it, we also aim to create experiences that offer a hybrid between human-led and virtual experiences.

In terms of sustainability, airlines are faced with a paradox: They want to grow, but at the same time reduce their environmental impact. How are you thinking about this complicated problem?

United acknowledges the challenge and is committed to addressing it. For instance, we recognise that for as long as we continue to use conventional fuels, deploying them on newer aircraft models like the Boeing 787 or our latest Airbus A321neo significantly improves fuel efficiency compared to older models like the Boeing 757s. Our broader goal is to transition away from conventional fuels and into sustainable fuels, and we have established strategic partnerships to help drive that effort forward.

It's within reach to envision a future where aircraft operate electrically at cruising altitudes, minimising environmental impact. The composite material used in the Boeing 787 has significantly reduced its weight, which reduces the thrust requirements for takeoff and climb. We're exerting pressure on manufacturers to develop new mechanisms for electric propulsion, and I believe this responsibility lies both with manufacturers to innovate and with us to advocate for these advancements.

Additionally, United has been actively pursuing on-the-ground infrastructure electrification since long before the pandemic. Most of our stations now feature electric ground equipment and power stations, which allows for an ample supply of electric vehicles.

We've already deployed our first three electric vehicles and have plans to convert our entire fleet of towbarless aircraft tractors to electric. Partnering with airports is also crucial here because it ensures that we have access to grids, charging stations, and sufficient parking space. This journey has accelerated over the past five to ten years, which has helped us hone our expertise in electric vehicle utilisation on the airfield.

It's evident in the insights you’ve shared with us that the customer experience is fundamental to United’s culture.

In my seventeen years with United, it's been a journey of transformation. About six years ago, under Oscar Munoz’s leadership, I witnessed a profound shift in our culture toward customer and employee centricity. This continues to pick up steam today under our current CEO, Scott Kirby. The focus has shifted from only getting flights off the ground on time to equally prioritising customer satisfaction and employee well-being. Initiatives like our Connection Saver program, which prioritises passenger connections even if it means delaying a flight, are a good example of this mindset shift.

As we've embraced this new culture, I've seen a surge in enthusiasm from employees who are drawn to United for its cultural values. That said, to sustain this positive momentum and the progress we’ve made, it is going to take a continued commitment from all of us. I believe our leadership has done an exceptional job in fostering this culture of excellence and am excited to see how it evolves from here.

What are you most optimistic about for this industry? What gets you most excited?

There are so many aspects that excite me, but I'm particularly optimistic about sustainability. Personally, witnessing my company and other industry players actively engaging in sustainability initiatives reassures me that more stakeholders are recognising the importance of long-term sustainability over short-term profits. As an industry with a century-long legacy, we have a responsibility to uphold, and achieving sustainability is crucial for our future.

Aviation has always been my passion, and I find immense joy in facilitating people's journeys to new destinations, especially for leisure travel, as it broadens their horizons and fosters cultural understanding. To keep making these experiences a reality for travellers, we must prioritise sustainability – and while it will take dedicated effort, I am genuinely excited and optimistic about what lies ahead.

Do you want to learn more about our work with the aviation industry? Are you looking for ways to reimagine your employee and customer experience? Reach out.