How AWS machine learning helped United Airlines navigate some unfriendly skies during COVID

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan December 14, 2021 Audio mode
COVID has hit the travel industry hard, but United Airline's digital teams have been busy to ensure that the crisis has not stalled innovation.


The COVID crisis made the skies decidedly unfriendly for United Airlines, but the carrier’s single cloud AWS commitment has enabled it to use machine learning to drive business outcomes and keep customer satisfaction levels high.

In common with the rest of the travel sector, it’s been a tough two years for the airline. Back in 2009, it was operating 1.7 million flights, carrying 162 million customers to over 300 destinations worldwide. Today, as Chief Digital Officer Linda Dojo puts it:

It's most certainly not 2019 anymore. There's no doubt that the last 22 months have had a tremendous impact on the airline and travel industry.

There has, of late, been some improvement as the travel sector has re-opened, although the Omicron variant’s spread serves as a timely reminder that events can still pivot in other directions. In the interim, United has not ‘wasted a good crisis’, but has put the time in to pursue its philosophy that inclusion propels innovation. Jojo notes:

My team is non-traditional by airline standards, and maybe even by the standard technology team - 50% of my direct reports are women, 60% of my leadership team is diverse. And it's not just that. Many of our teams come from the airline industry, but just as many come from other industries as well.


And those teams have been busy even if the passenger routes have not:

Innovation was significantly accelerated due to our work with AWS. Specifically, AWS enabled us to increase the speed of innovation during a crisis. It helped us variabilize our cost structure and put us on a path to replace ageing legacy platforms. In 2019, we knew that our legacy platforms were becoming costly to operate and we were really concerned that they weren't going to be able to scale as the airline grew.

So back in the ‘old normal’, evaluation began into whether the most appropriate flight path for United would be based on a single cloud or multi-cloud strategy. As an airline, there were particular considerations that shaped this debate, recalls Jojo:

During all of our discussions, we kept coming back to the importance of resilience because any glitch in the smallest of systems has the potential to cause a flight delay and within minutes that can become a Twitter storm, or worse, hits the news cycle. That meant a single cloud provider.

With that decision made, the team at United looked out into the market to evaluate the best options in terms of a provider. Jojo says that a combination of the quality and breadth of product as well as a demonstrable continued pace of innovation led to the conclusion that AWS was the best choice.

COVID comes

With that in mind, February 2020 saw a “top-to-top” meeting between AWS and United in Chicago to scope out what happens next.

What actually happened next, of course, was COVID hit a few weeks later. This inevitably altered everything, says Jojo:

To say that it changed our focus would be an understatement. There was one day in April of 2020 where we had fewer passengers than pilots. We stopped all projects. It also became painfully obvious not only could our current platforms not scale up, they couldn't scale down either.

In addition, the United digital technology teams found themselves suddenly working from home. Instead of what Jojo calls “a two pizza team”, the digital arm found itself working with “a one screen team made up of no more than the number of videos squares you can fit on your computer monitor”. 

But despite these changed circumstances, innovation continued with one of the first big ideas to emerge being a product called the Travel Ready Center. This is a one-stop-shop, integrated into the airline’s website and mobile app, where passengers can review specific COVID travel requirements for upcoming travel, find local testing options, and upload any testing or vaccination records that might be needed for entry.  Jojo explains:

As travel restrictions increased, it was really confusing for our customers, and our team knew we could do better when international flying re-started. The team built a machine learning model to address the travel chaos. We used Amazon S3 to pull in COVID test forms. They categorize them with Amazon DynamoDB and then run forms through Amazon Textract and Amazon SageMaker. All 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 over 4 million customers.

Customers love it, she adds:

They get their boarding passes before they get to the airport. They zip right through the airport lobby. They don't stop to get their documents checked...Travel requirements continue to change the forms. They vary by country. It's complicated. It's time consuming and incredibly  complex. So we solved this quickly using Amazon SageMaker and it was significantly better than our own internally-developed models. As far as I know, United is the only airline doing these checks completely within our mobile app.

More AWS

While the Travel Ready Center was rolled out, other teams around United saw that refactoring and moving workloads to AWS would save cash, says Jojo, important since the airline was running at such a scaled down rate. The situation also changed the way that projects were approached:

We used the time to take a little bit more risk. As a result, many of the technologies used by our employees, and much of what our core customer facing technology runs on - over 100 applications  in all - they now run on AWS, up from less than a handful when the pandemic started. This was not a lift and shift. These applications have a more intuitive user experience. They have better operational instrumentation and better security.

And importantly, frontline teams love the new systems, she adds:

These tools make it easier to assist our customers They scale up and they scale down with passenger demand. It's definitely one of the reasons that our customer Net Promoter Score is up over 30 points since the start of the pandemic. That means our Chief Customer Officer is happy and so is our CFO  -  how often does that happen?

Much of what is much of what has propelled our success are native AWS products. They're enabling us to rapidly transform our legacy platforms…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.

A grey colored placeholder image