United CIO Looks To Do More With Less

Eric Dean continues plans to increase the airline's productivity despite a 30% reduction in its IT department.

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

January 7, 2002

2 Min Read

September was not an easy month for United Airlines' CIO Eric Dean. Less than two years after he joined the company, Dean saw his IT department reduced by more than 30%, effectively cutting his development crew in half. This happened at a time when Dean could use a few extra hands. While keeping an eye on possible government mandates to help improve airline security (such as biometrics), he also plans to boost productivity by making some serious headway on updating United's systems, typically between 15 and 35 years old.

One recent change involved United's application maintenance schedule. While the company has hundreds of apps, only two dozen or so represent its lifeblood and must be maintained tirelessly. But IT was given a large amount of piecemeal work in the past--some internal clients wanted weekly changes, others made requests only once a year. Now, United is on a quarterly release cycle. "It allows us to impose more organizational discipline," Dean says. Instead of submitting requests for new features willy-nilly, users must consider their requests more carefully. And when a group of requests is submitted for one application, it may help justify replacing the app entirely. That argument would be tougher to make when individual feature requests trickle in through the course of a year. "Now we can ask, is it better done by replacing the old app or enhancing the old app?" Dean says.

Dean also subscribes to another classic productivity enhancer: Don't reinvent the wheel. In recent months, his group has adapted existing systems to help the company react quickly. When flight capacity dropped more than 20% for all airlines in the wake of September's terrorist attacks, United decided to overhaul its flight schedule. To help with that, the airline used a reallocation system designed to rebook passengers who'd been stranded by bad weather. "We were able to build on what we had," Dean says. The company also had to contact 2 million passengers about flight changes for November and December. Thanks to IT, a few hundred thousand of those passengers were contacted via E-mail and computerized voice messages. That eased the burden on reservation clerks, whose ranks were trimmed by 20% in September.

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