Behind the scenes with United Airlines

I got a call (or an email)

In early November, I attended what United called a Millennial Summit. I got to be part of a group of about 20 young professionals they flew to their headquarters in Chicago to talk about how they’ve been transforming as a company over the past few years.

United Technical Operations

I’ve always been fascinated and by airports and the airline in general. My dad used to take me to the airport in Tampa to go plane spotting. The aircraft weren’t the most exciting — TPA didn’t get 747s, 777s, or anything crazy cool except for an annual Concorde flight — but the logistics of airports has always amazed me.

The customer-facing aspect of an airport is in and of itself an amazing feat that’s somehow replicated in various ways on a global scale. Modern airports engage travelers with beautiful, open designs, and food and shopping options that can accommodate thousands of passengers on a daily basis. But the

After clearing a security checkpoint (but not a TSA checkpoint) we stepped out of our van and into one of United Airlines’ hangers.

The SFO maintenance hub isn’t new for United — their technical operations pre-date their merger with Continental and they have operated the majority of their maintenance here for decades. The SFO facility is massive, and are able to complete everything from swapping out a seat (I think that’s minor) to heavy maintenance, including most of the work required for renewing their fleet. That means updating satellite internet and entertainment systems and installing the new Polaris and Premium Plus seats can be done right here!

The 737 aircraft we boarded was completely stripped apart in the passenger cabin, in part to realign the seats. Apparently many seats are off by several inches and inconsistent across the fleet. Who knew 🤷‍♂️? United is using this as an opportunity to to perform more intensive maintenance checks. That’s important for some of these older birds flying to many destinations a day.

The whole cabin can be taken apart and examined in just a matter of days, and these tasks require a lot of skill and deep knowledge of different aircraft types. I personally thought most of this work was done overseas (you can frequently find US airplanes undergoing new seat installations in China, for example). It’s good to know that a plane doesn’t need to fly to Xiamen or Hong Kong — we have the talent right here!

But according to the United representatives we spoke with, most of the domestic maintenance work is done out of their San Francisco hub, which supplies the region with a ton of well-paying jobs that aren’t related to the dominant tech industry.

After touring the disassembled 737, we walked through an entire hanger of engines, where we found engines for every type of aircraft, including some military aircraft. It was impressive.

Learning how important the San Francisco maintenance hub is to the airline’s continued operations gave me a new appreciation for SFO. You can tell by the occasional tulip logo and lack of Continental branding that San Francisco has a long history with United, and the airline said that though there are challenges with the airport and some of the Bay Area’s economics, they are continuing to invest growing these vital operations at the airport.

Entering the Apron

After wrapping up with the maintenance facility tour, we headed to the apron — the tarmac and operational area of hundreds of flights every day. We had a slight delay at the secure entrance, but our group was able to snap a few photos of some jumbo jets taking off during sunset 🌅 🛫.

Now for the awesome part. We got to send a flight off by pushing it out of the gate!

After we found our flight for pushback, I got go climb into the belly of a tiny a319! The cargo hold on these things is super tiny, and this flight going to Portland wasn’t very packed.

After we wrapped up the tour, United invited us to the Polaris lounge for a meet and greet with their SFO team. With a few drinks and dinner, I was on my way to Austin

People who travel a lot often speak a different language. It often involves a mixture of points accrual chatter, award program status updates, and war stories (you know, like how you almost got an upgrade but had to sit in Premium Economy for 9 hours). It’s a rough life.


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