One of the key components of a successful airline operation is a well-oiled network of airports.
For United Airlines, this means its network of airport hubs has to become better at making money for the company.
One of the men tasked with fixing the problem is Jon Roitman, United’s senior vice president of airport operations.
Roitman spoke with Business Insider on Monday at the airline’s Newark Liberty International Airport hub. The executive was in town for the grand opening of a set of high-tech security checkpoints; designed to increase the threat detention capability of the TSA while boosting the speed at which passengers can be processed.
Roitman touched upon several subjects including how the airline and airport operations have changed over the past couple of decades.
Change in airports
Over the past decade, the landscape of the US airline industry changed dramatically. Through mergers, the nation’s six full-service legacy carriers have been whittled down to just three — American, Delta, and United. With fewer domestic competitors, some smaller destinations have seen their service cut, at the same time, airlines have been able to build massive fortress hubs where flights into or out of major cities are dominated by a single airline — affording them unrivaled pricing power.
While many passengers may complain about having fewer options, airline consolidation has had a positive effect on airports, Roitman told us.
In fact, he believes the increased stability brought on by consolidation has been the biggest change in US airports.
“Fifteen to 20 years ago, carriers were threatened by bankruptcy and had a tough time making a dime,” Roitman said. “With all of the consolidation, we’re able to really run a profitable entity. Now there’s stability and stability makes it possible for us to invest in things we want like modern airplanes, in-flight amenities, the airport experience, and technology.”
Roitman, who ran Continental’s Newark operation prior to its 2010 merger with United, cited new technology such as the more than 50,000 Apple iPhone and iPad mobile devices the airline’s staff now have at their disposal to help with everything from printing boarding passes to helping passengers find their connecting gate.
Over the past few years, United has invested $150 million in its Newark operation to improve everything from bars and dining options to baggage handling and aircraft maintenance facilities.
“At the end of the day, it’s all about the people,” he said. “It’s all about our employees and making sure they are aligned to what we want to accomplish and that’s absolutely been a stable thread throughout my career.”
Areas for improvement
Last August, United Airlines hired former American Airlines president Scott Kirby mere minutes after he left his previous post.
Kirby is regarded as one of the elite strategists in the airline industry.
Since his arrival, he’s has been working to restructure the airline’s major hubs to make flights into and out of the airports more convenient for connecting passenger and hopefully more profitable as a result.
Even though United’s hubs — Newark, Washington D.C., Chicago, Houston, Denver, San Francisco, and Los Angeles — service the strongest set of markets among the nation’s big three carriers, they haven’t performed up to snuff. For instance, the Philadelphia hub Kirby built for American Airlines offers significantly better connectivity than Newark has been for United.
According to Roitman, who is a graduate of the US Military Academy at West Point, the airline is working to make improvements on that front.
“That’s a bit of journey and it’s a journey we like because we like the strategy that (CEO Oscar Munoz) and Scott Kirby have brought to the table in terms of flying the airline differently,” Roitman said. “The reason I mentioned it’s a journey is because you have to have gates and the facilities that match that kind of need. That journey is underway. We are investing throughout our network right now to make sure our hubs can absorb that connectivity.”
Time at the airport
Even though, airlines have such as United have invested in airport facilities, there’s still a ways to go before the travel experience is truly pleasant. One of the major culprits are the security checkpoints and their notoriously long lines.
While the new automated security screening lanes such as those opened this week at Newark will certainly improve the situation, passengers themselves can also help make things go quicker and easier.
“What’s really important for checkpoints is what we call ‘divesting’ which includes making sure that all metals are out of your pockets, and your laptop is out of your bag when you enter the screening lane,” Roitman said. “Having greater awareness of this, which the TSA advertises all the time, will greatly help congestion because even one passengers who says ‘What do you mean I have to take my laptop out’ will hold up the whole process for others.”
In addition, passengers need to build in extra time ahead of a flight for check-in and security screening. The TSA suggests arriving two hours early for a domestic flight and three hours ahead of an international flight.
“I believe passengers need to have awareness about being travel ready and understanding that they need to gauge their arrival time at the airport based on whether or not its peak travel season,” he told us. “So if you’re in the peak summer season you should probably arrive earlier than a slower time.”
And if you do get through the security process ahead of schedule, especially at Newark, then feel free to take advantage of the bars and restaurants, Roitman added.
Unexpected sights at the airport
The airport is never boring — especially when it comes to sights and sounds.
For Roitman, who has several decades worth of experience running major hubs around the country, one instance stands out.
“In Newark Airport, I actually saw a customer with a pony in the arrivals areas. It was an emotional support service animal.” Roitman told us. “I’m not so sure if they tried to get it through the security checkpoint, but it was certainly a shocker when I saw it.”