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Expecting the unexpected

How United Visual helped design a crisis management
center at United Airlines

UAL Special Operations Center, with 14 workstations, 3 Sony projectors and 2 large video monitorsExpect the unexpected. That's the order of the day at United Airlines Operation Control Center, a vast room nestled within the Elk Grove, Illinois, complex the airline calls home. It's a constant buzz of activity for the people who work here. Even when things are running smoothly, everything is changing. Just ask Rance Powers, who has been with the airline for 38 years, the last seven as Manager of Systems Operation Control. At any given time he can tell you how many planes are in the air, if there is bad weather anywhere in the world, how many passengers are boarding, and if any flights are delayed. "I watch the whole airline through my computers. I can find just about anything I want to know, right in here."

It's a far cry from the days when the airline used teletypes, bulletin boards and stickpins to track information. Today well over 100 people use UNIX workstations to juggle over 2,000 flights a day worldwide, sharing data on aircraft availability, weather conditions, maintenance schedules, traffic patterns, crew assignments, and even passenger loading numbers.

A daily jigsaw puzzle

On this day, Powers and his meteorologists are keeping their eye on bad weather moving into San Francisco, thinking how they can minimize any delays it may cause. Being ahead of the game is essential in this business: there's little time to make a decision after the fact. As Aircraft Router Dave Rogoski explains, "We're launching an airplane out of Honolulu that will be here at 12:10. Six hours from now, we'll have to ask, am I going to be able to land in Chicago or will I have to go to Milwaukee?" If the answer is Milwaukee, Rogoski and his co-workers will need answers to a host of other questions. How will they move Chicago-bound passengers in to their destination? What about passengers trying to make connecting flights? If the inbound flight was to go on from Chicago, where will they find an aircraft and crew to take its place?

Closeup of a UNIX workstation, radio handset and satellite feeds used to monitor TV newsThe operations personnel must put together the giant jigsaw puzzle that is the day to day operations of United Airlines. Routers keep track of the 575 airplanes in the fleet, plugging in spares to avoid delays and changing routing to assure that each arrives in the right city for scheduled maintenance. The crew schedulers handle 25,000 cockpit crew members and flight attendants, moving them from flight to flight as needed to cover 112 destination cities. Operation controllers must have an eye out for the unforeseen and be ready to rework any plan to avoid inconvenience to passengers. Once they finish their juggling, it's the dispatchers' job to implement the flight plan, making sure it's legal and safe. If they find a flaw, it all gets sent back to square one. Once the dispatchers are comfortable, there's still one person who can say "no go." Every captain goes over his flight plan before takeoff, and if he's uncomfortable for any reason, the flight will not operate. After all, he's the one who is ultimately responsible for the plane and its passengers once they're in the air. And the last thing anyone wants is a safety problem.

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Crisis management control

Despite the preparation and the checks and balances, problems occasionally occur. United Airlines made a commitment many years ago to be ready for anything. So hidden behind the hub of activity we've described is a small but powerful room called the Special Operations Center—informally, the crisis management room.

Once again, it is Rance Powers who makes the decision to use this room in the event of a problem. Once he makes the call, the appropriate personnel take their positions. These include the president and CEO of United Airlines, vice-presidents of most of its departments and whatever outsiders might be able to help. The room's computer and communications systems have a reach of global proportions, and Rogoski says that can mean saving precious minutes when they need it most. "One of the first things we do upon activation of the room is to try to get as much help and support out to that aircraft as possible. That may mean finding an obscure piece of engineering data to fix a malfunction or lining up a team to help with a medical problem.We can take airplanes if we need to or get local crews together to bring in volunteers. Whatever the problem, we can have support headed where it's needed almost immediately."

A major upgrade

All of this, of course, requires top-notch equipment as well as top-level management. In the fall of 1997 the airline called in United Visual to help upgrade the crisis management center. The airline's engineers planned to replace the room's five-year-old computers and needed higher resolution projection systems to match. Rick Nelson, United Visual's Sales Manager, explains. "What United Airlines wanted was extremely fine detail. Someone sitting 20 or 30 feet away from the screen needed to be able to read aircraft flight numbers, weather maps and air traffic control data." They also needed to be able to see data from more than one computer simultaneously, bring in video from the news media and other sources, and, of course, tie in radio and telephone communications.

Nelson and his engineering team designed a system using three Sony CRT-based graphics projectors in a rear projection room, two large-screen video monitors, an Extron Matrix switching system, sound system, audioconferencing system and AMX touchscreen controls. They tied these into the room's 14 UNIX workstations, 14 radio communications panels, PC and video presentation systems plus six satellite television feeds.

This touch panels makes a/v operation simple: just touch any source then any destinationA nice refinement of the system is the ability to control all of the room's a/v functions from a single screen on the touch panel. This screen shows an icon for every source and every output device on the switching system. The operator simply touches the icon for the source he wants to share, then the icon for the monitor or projector he wants to show it on. The screen also includes icons and volume controls for the room's audio systems.

Airline managers can use the a/v system to watch any flight from its takeoff to touchdown. They can have constant contact with that plane in the air, and they can watch anything that may be affecting the plane's environment as it travels. "We can superimpose maps of weather, of radar, of satellite photography on top of our aircraft situation display," says Rogoski. "We get a good idea where an airplane is, how it's being affected by the natural elements and how it fits into the air traffic control picture." The new Matrix switching system United Visual installed gets much of the credit. "When we called United Visual in to give us some ideas on how to accomplish this, we did not even know this type of switcher existed. It was a very creative and extremely useful solution for us. We were also on a strict budget, and the solution was very cost effective."