Ep. 263 - Jason Birnbaum, SVP of Digital Technology at United Airlines on Innovating During a Crisis
On this week's episode of Inside Outside Innovation, we sit down with Jason Birnbaum, Senior Vice President of Digital Technology at United Airlines. Jason and I discuss what it takes to innovate during a crisis and how United continues to adapt to evolving customer, employee, and market changes. Let's get started.
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Interview Transcription of Jason Birnbaum, Senior Vice President of Digital Technology at United Airlines
Brian Ardinger: Welcome to another episode of Inside Outside Innovation. I'm your host, Brian Ardinger and as always, we have another amazing guest. Today we have Jason Birnbaum. He is a SVP of Digital Technology at United Airlines. Welcome to the show, Jason,
Jason Birnbaum: It's a pleasure to be here.
Brian Ardinger: Jason, I am excited to have you on the show. You are in an industry that is in the midst of disruption as we all are. But I think the travel industry is even facing more dilemmas. So, I wanted to get somebody on who's focused on innovation in this trying times, to see what it's like to be in the trenches in this world. So, tell us a little bit about what's your role at United and how it deals with it.
Jason Birnbaum: I really am responsible for all of the technology associated with our employees, but also all the customer experiences that you would have at the airport, on board, really anywhere that you're physically involved with United Airlines.
So, if you like the kiosks or you don't like the kiosk, that's what we do. All the signage in the airports moving you around. That's all part of my team as well. So wide scope, but lots of fun.
Brian Ardinger: And when we had a chance to be introduced, one of the reasons I wanted to have you on the show is because the United Airlines takes a broad approach to innovation. You know, I think a lot of companies focus on innovation and think about it from a, like a product perspective only, but you seem to focused on more holistic. Talk a little bit about how you perceive innovation and what goes into making those particular types of decisions.
Jason Birnbaum: First of all, when you think about the airlines, our product is the airline. And so our product is the employees. And the product is the experience, and so for us, almost every part of it, including people that actually work and fix the airplanes, people that actually, you know, load the bags and all of those are so intimately connected to the whole experience, that we have to think of innovation in a broad way.
And so, when we started thinking about it, we realized that we needed to enable our employees to deliver great service. And connect that to the way our customers traveled. So, a lot of our innovation was really employee focused so that they could deliver great service.
And when you start thinking about it in that thread, it really opened the door for a lot of really, really amazing innovation, whether it's freeing up employees, so they can actually spend time with customers. Right. Or it's just giving them information or data to anticipate your need, or if it's making that technician able to get the plane going faster. So, you are not late, like all of that fits together. And the way we think about innovation,
Brian Ardinger: I imagine you get bombarded with new ideas and challenges and problems that are coming from their employees or from your customer set saying, hey, fix this or make this better. What's the process to go about looking at, across the ideas, and doing something about them.
Jason Birnbaum: Yeah. Well, it's a, it's a great question. There is a lot and we do get bombarded. You know, I, I think one of the pivots we made as an organization was moving from thinking of more of a traditional information technology organization that really took orders, got prioritization lists, to thinking of the whole group as a really like a product development organization.
We had a much stronger opinion as to what the next steps were going to be. And really partnered and drove an agenda. And so, for us, the transformation was really about, I have a team of product designers, design thinking experts, people who help us build those roadmaps, whether the product owners are on our team or in some other place, and really lay out, not necessarily a prioritization process, but what's the road map.
And then from there we've moved very quickly to how do we prototype, test the theory, move quickly, move in small pieces, to get to the product. We've tried to get away from two-year projects. Four-year projects. You know, we try to think about how do I solve a problem, get something going, start it and empower.
And I think when a big company, especially companies have been around for a long time, you know, they built a lot of control mechanisms and we've really worked to strip those out and say, hey, if you're the decision maker, if you're in the front, You've got the product. Make the change, see if it works, and let's move forward from there.
Now that's certainly for the customer experience and for efficiency, obviously, you know, when I think about things like safety and those things, obviously all those controls are really important, and we take those very seriously. But there's a lot of places where experimentation can really lead to innovation.
Brian Ardinger: Can you talk about some examples of where you've deployed technology and some of the changes that you've made over the years to make the experience better for employees and customers?
Jason Birnbaum: Yeah, no, we have so many great examples. I'll hit two things. The first thing we realized, and this was a few years ago is none of our employees sit behind a desk. They, none of them have seats. Yet we built all these applications and all these tools for them on a PC. And so, we started to say, well, how do we un-tether is the word we used, our employees from these desks.
And so, we rolled out one of the first innovations was creating and building a mobile ecosystem for our employees. Where, whether you're a gate agent, a technician, you're on the ramp, pilot, flight attendant, you had a mobile device and that mobile device, first and foremost, gave you tools to do your job. So, you could board a plane, help a passenger, take an order for a drink. That was like the base case.
Then we said, well we've got this mobile ecosystem, what else can we do? And the second thing we said was how do we give people data to anticipate what they're going to need to do? So now I've got this delivery mechanism. How do I say all right, this passenger is getting ready to reach a milestone on their mileage. So why don't we thank them? Or this passenger has had a couple of bad flights. Take care when you're on this flight. So, we started giving that information.
And then lastly, and this is where the real excitement came in. We connected everybody via just communications and chat functionality. We created a product, we call it Easy Chat, that connects everybody involved with the flight. The pilots, flight attendants, the gate agents, the catering company, everybody together in one chat space so that everyone knows what's going on.
And that's been an amazing advantage for our employees. And it's really created the capability to deliver unbelievable customer service. I was thinking about it. I got a note from a customer, and they said, you know, my father was 80. He was traveling on the plane and he got on the plane. He realized he left his bag in the lobby, like at the gate.
Right. And in the old days, like that would have been a myriad of phone calls and radio calls and running back and forth. And so, the flight attendant just typed on the chat. Hey, does anyone see a bag out there? And the gate agent got it and brought it back on. And it was just a much better experience. And they were really happy for that level of customer service.
And I think the other thing we're really excited about right now, I mean, there's many, but the other thing we're really excited about is, we call it Agent On Demand. In a COVID time, one of the things we're seeing is that one people don't necessarily want to be face-to-face as, as much.
And two, with a lot of different staffing shortages and things going on right now. And just general air travel, you know, there can be problems. Getting a hold of somebody at an airport can be tricky and there can be lines and it can take some time.
And so, we said, well, what if we could scale it by creating just a way that I can hit a QR code or walk up to a kiosk. Push a button and speak to an agent who maybe isn't at the airport, you're at, maybe they're in another airport or some other location, but maybe they aren't as busy as the ones happening right now, where there's a storm or a disruption.
And we started really simply and about eight months ago, and we started testing it. Caught on fire. We've gotten it in all of our hubs and another handful of stations and we're continuing to roll it out. But customers really love it because it marries the technology and the ease of using your phone or kiosk with an actual person.
And so, they do get the personal touch, but they do it in a way that the technology really supports. So, it's been a big win for us. And it's certainly something we're going to see more of that kind of innovation.
Brian Ardinger: You mentioned customers playing a role in that innovation process and giving you feedback in that. How do you go about rolling out a new product like the agent on demand? Did you do that across everything all at once? Or how did you go about testing and building out that particular example?
Jason Birnbaum: Yeah, look, we go out and we test, like, we send our people out to the airports and our designers and our researchers. We'll prototype something. We'll grab our employees and our customers and just test it out. And we use our airports as labs almost. Living labs. And we learn from it. We're very transparent about what we're doing. So, we will tell our customers, Hey, we're trying a new process or a new technology. We'd love to get your feedback on it.
We stood up a kiosk for Agent on Demand. We sort of had some of our people standing around. We said would you like to try this? What do you think? Did it work? Did it not work? And it just grows from there. So, it's a pretty organic process, but it's certainly not going into a conference room for six months. Emerging with the answer, the answer. What we find out is we're not very good at solutioning in that bubble.
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Brian Ardinger: Well, you mentioned COVID. Obviously, that's affecting all of us, but it's affecting the travel industry quite a bit. What have you seen over the last 18 months of how fast your processes have had to change or what's the impact been on both the industry and how United reacts to it?
Jason Birnbaum: Yeah. It's been, obviously for our business, the most disruptive event in the history of the airline industry. And I think travel in general. So, and a tragedy in terms of the loss of human life and really the whole problems and pain that it's caused.
But for us, our mission was to keep the airline alive, because we believe that it was critical to provide support for the doctors that needed to get to places. It's a lifeline for our economy. And so, the mission was really clear. And it, but it did force a tremendous amount of innovation, really fast, whether it's ever-changing requirements to travel both domestically and in other countries and how we empower our employees to know that in real time. We had to build a lot of tools and connections to that.
We've had to become very smart on the big innovations, partnering with Abbott and other providers on how to get testing done, whether your international travel or employee testing. We had to set up clinics in our airport to do both vaccination and testing.
As you know, we recently just today announced that we are going to have all of our employees vaccinated over the next few months. And you know, that involved us setting up a system where people could upload their vaccine cards and then use that information to give it to the various systems that people schedule their work. So, we know who is and who isn't and where they are and et cetera.
And so, there's been a lot of innovation in that space, but it's been a very proud moment for me of the team and the way they've risen to the occasion. And the way they thought differently to really keep the whole industry alive.
Brian Ardinger: You know, a lot of times we think about, you know, all the negative effects of COVID and, and that, but I've seen not only with United, but other companies, like rising to the occasion and understanding that innovation is now not just something that we think about in the future, but something we have to do on a regular basis. Are there any particular surprises or positive effects that have come out because of the crisis?
Jason Birnbaum: Yeah. In the beginning of the pandemic, you know, we had to go through like everyone else, some tough cuts, reprioritize. And, and we got through it all. And we said, we've still got an airline to run. And so, we got together and said, you know what we need, we coined a phrase, and we call it, we need to get scrappy.
So, we actually created a little manifesto around it. And at the heart of it was, it said, you know, we got to start thinking like a small business. We got to start thinking about how to move forward. It's going to be about, everyone's got to do more, do different roles, take chances. You know, maybe you don't do testing. When are you going to do testing or maybe you don't know how to do this kind of coding, but you're going to do this kind of coding, because we just don't have a lot of people in time that we were used to.
And I think that really caught on and the idea that we can find scrappy answers to tough problems is something now that's really sort of taken over the whole company. And we talk a lot about how do we get scrappy, which is code for how do we find simple, fast solutions to tough problems, and then scale them from there.
And I think when I talk to my team, especially, they're like, we don't want to go back. We don't want to go back to the bureaucracy. We don't want to go back to the way it was before. We want to stay scrappy. And I think that's going to be a legacy coming out of this, that we're going to continue.
Brian Ardinger: Well, that's a great segue for the trends that you're seeing, both in the travel industry and within United. What, what are you most excited about in moving into the future and maybe what are you most worried about or scared about?
Jason Birnbaum: Well, first of all, I'm excited people are traveling again. Which is fantastic. I think there's a lot of work and thought happening right now about the travel experience. And I think we are going to be on the front end right now of a lot of innovation and travel in terms of how do we take the friction out of it. Is biometrics a big part of that?
And we're working with the TSA. But make that a much more seamless opportunity. There's a lot more personalization that can happen. Whether it's food on board or different kinds of services. So, I, I'm really excited that as we emerged from the pandemic that I think we're going to be able to really continue to make the experience better.
And I know some people love it and some people don't, but I think there's going to be a lot of new things that come out using technology to make it just a much better experience for folks. And connect your whole journey, beyond just the airline, but maybe to the hotel and to the rental car as well. And how do we think of it in a more seamless way?
So, I think that's what I'm excited about. I think I'm excited as we continue to just the new business models that we're thinking about in terms of, you know, are we more Uber. You know, use your mobile app more, we've got the best mobile app in the industry. How do we continue to make that experience better? So, there's a bunch of stuff I'm really excited about.
Nervous, I think again, you know, it's a tough industry. There is innovation happening there is disruption happening. So, I think we have to continue to get better. We have to continue to prove to our customers that we have the best product. And whether that's through a great operation and getting you there on time. Whether it's through the technology that we offer. Whether it's through the great employees and the customer service and their anticipation of your needs through the journey. Like we just got to win on all those fronts.
And so, the thing that I'm worried about is complacency as we come out of this. And as people come back that we cannot forget that we've got to continue to up our game because there's always folks out there that will come and try to compete with us.
Brian Ardinger: And it's so important that culture aspect, like you said, you know, rallying around the new, new, and the new next and that culture and that. Are there particular things you have looked at as far as being effective at implementing that culture of innovation?
Jason Birnbaum: The culture of innovation, I think it's for us, it's about having our innovators or our technology team or people that are driving change as close as possible to the frontline and to the employee and to the customer. If you get bright, creative, motivated people, with people that actually are serving our customers or our customers, they will naturally find a million great ideas.
And then our job is to help support them in the creation and the development of those things. And so for me, the culture comes from actually having our folks right there with them shoulder to shoulder, out in the operations, out on the planes.
And I think my message to anybody is the fewer people between the user and the customer and the person who's building it, the better off you are. Because you lose some, every step, you lose something in that translation. And you don't end up with the kind of innovation that you want to get to
For More Information
Brian Ardinger: Jason, thank you for coming on Inside Outside Innovation and sharing what you're seeing in the trenches. Again, I appreciate the time. If people want to find out more about yourself or more about what the United Airlines is doing in this space, where should they go?
Jason Birnbaum: I mean, certainly you can hit me up on Twitter @Jason_ UAL or my LinkedIn profile is available. I've got links to some articles on some of the things that we've done in more detail. So happy to take any comments there and questions, and any feedback you might have on what's happening out there as your audience is out and starts traveling again.
Brian Ardinger: Well, Jason, thanks again for being on Inside Outside Innovation, look forward to continuing the conversation and best of luck. And where are you going to travel next?
Jason Birnbaum: We just got back. We were just in Mexico. We were just in California, and now I'm setting my sights on trying to figure out how to get to Europe when that opens up. And so, I love to travel, and I've got a long list of places I need to get to.
Brian Ardinger: Well, I hope to see you on the road, and I appreciate your time again. Thank you very much.
Jason Birnbaum: Thank you very much. It's been a pleasure.
Brian Ardinger: That's it for another episode of Inside Outside Innovation. If you want to learn more about our team, our content, our services, check out InsideOutside.io or follow us on Twitter @theIOpodcast or @Ardinger. Until next time, go out and innovate.
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