United Airlines opens operations center in Willis Tower

June 18, 2012 (CHICAGO)

The airline gave the media a sneak peek Monday at its new network operations center that's housed on an entire floor in the Willis Tower. The center runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week with employees overseeing about 5,600 United and United Express flights a day.

"It's amazing how many people are looking at one aircraft at one time when they're flying," said Eduardo Alvarez, manager of dispatch operations. "There are so many people looking at it, but that is exactly why we're here. We're trying to keep the airline running but our main point is safety."

The center opened on May 31, combining operations centers from Houston and the Chicago suburb of Elk Grove Village. It's the result of the merger between United and Continental Airlines in 2010.

"What consolidating here enables us to do is communicate better versus over the phone, new technology, new facilities," said Pete McDonald, United Chief operations officer.

About 1,300 people work shifts in the center, planning flights, forecasting weather, routing aircraft, scheduling crews and working with air traffic control from across the country.

Staff can communicate directly with a plane's flight crew, monitor weather patterns, schedule maintenance, and coordinate with air traffic control.

"It takes a bunch of us to work together and look at all the details and say, 'how can we do this and work in a more expeditious manner,' get them where they're going so they have that good travel experience that we're looking for," said Debbie Tempest, manager of network operations.

But United Airlines pilots demonstrating outside Monday Willis Tower said the company has focused more on upgrading their technology than taking care of its employees. Members of the pilots union said they have been without a contract for three years and cannot reach an agreement with United on fair wages and the use of outsourced pilots.

"The company won't be able to go forward at the level that we as employees want unless they take care of the employees first," said Kevin Simecek, Airline Pilots Association.

In response to the pilots union, a United spokesperson said: "We have an entire team of people focused on working with our pilots on a new contract. In fact, they have been meeting for the last month in negotiations. We are committed to getting a new contract with all our workgroups."

The pilots said there's no strike on the horizon and that their priority is getting a new contract.

The Associated Press contributed to this report

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