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United shows off new downtown operations center

Craig Podzielinski Air Traffic Control United Airlines Network Operations Center Willis Tower. | Brian Jackson~Sun-Times Monday June 18 2012

Craig Podzielinski of Air Traffic Control at the United Airlines Network Operations Center in the Willis Tower. | Brian Jackson~Sun-Times Monday, June 18, 2012

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Updated: October 23, 2012 6:50PM

On the 27th floor of the Willis Tower (formerly Sears Tower), about 20 miles southeast of O’Hare International Airport, 1,300 United Airlines workers handle 5,600 flights a day.

The network operations center combined the two former operations centers, in Elk Grove Village and Houston, and brought together employees — 35 to 40 percent from Continental.

On Monday, United gave a tour of the center, which became fully operational May 31.

Employees are identified not by name, but by job function, which is listed on placards at their desks. Detailed flight information is displayed in real time on 58 screens. Here, employees oversee flight planning, weather forecasting, crew scheduling, maintenance control and coordination with Air Traffic Control.

The airline occupies 12 floors of Willis Tower, and it has offices at its global headquarters at 77 W. Wacker.

A year ago, United Continental Holdings Inc. CEO Jeff Smisek and Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced the company would move 1,300 employees to downtown, bringing the total to 4,000. The company employs about 14,500 people in the Chicago area.

Craig Podzielinski, who works as an air traffic controller at the center, said he loves the new location, “the people, the technology and the free coffee.”

The new center provides “a more stress-free environment” for workers who on a given day might be handling flight complications from a typhoon heading toward Japan, a thunderstorm in Houston and tornadoes in the Midwest, said Joseph Vickers, a managing director of the network operations center.

Peter McDonald, vice president and chief operations officer for United Continental Holdings, said the new floor has made communications more efficient among employees, who previously had to coordinate back and forth from Houston to Elk Grove.

“It’s all about safety and serving our customers better,” McDonald said.

Back in March, it was unclear whether customers were feeling better served.

United Continental Holdings became the world’s largest air carrier when United merged with Houston-based Continental. The merger has faced its share of complications, including computer glitches early on that resulted in flyer upgrade issues, problems with frequent flyer accounts and customers who had difficulty reaching reservations agents. Problems occurred after United combined two of its computer systems.

“The vast majority of the those issues have been resolved,” said spokeswoman Megan McCarthy.

While the company unveiled its new center, United pilots picketed outside Willis Tower. The company has been busy negotiating amended contracts for pilots for more than two years since the merger.

Kevin Simecek, spokesperson for the United chapter of the Air Line Pilots Association, said that while the company pulled out all the stops to create its new control facility, “they’ve not addressed the human issue” of pilots working without an amended contract or a joint collective bargaining agreement.

“They’ve had more than ample time,” Simecek said.

United is very focused on finalizing those contracts, McCarthy said.

Contributing: AP

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