United Exec Shares Idea Scoring System, Innovation Challenges

By Patricia Riedman Yeager |  February 26, 2015

United Airlines was going through some turbulence in 2012. That year, the Chicago-based carrier ranked dead last in the annual Airline Quality Rating report, an industry report card that measures customer satisfaction.

A year later, United had made the largest leap in the rankings, which included all major U.S. airlines, improving rates of on-time performance, mishandled baggage, passenger “bumping,” and overall customer complaints. United Airline’s 2014 net income also showed dramatic improvement, spiking to $1.97 billion, up 89 percent from 2013.

Part of the continuing turnaround story at United are new approaches to idea-sourcing and a focus on rolling out technologies more rapidly. And one of the key players at the company is Jason Flores, Senior Manager, IT, Flight Operations, Mobile Technology, and Innovation. We spoke with him recently about some of the initiatives that he and others in the company have introduced to improve both airline operations and the passenger experience.

Sourcing and Scoring Ideas

Flores, pictured above with a United flight attendant, assumed his current role in 2013, when he was asked to create an IT innovation program that would solicit and cultivate ideas from United’s administrative employees. He adopted what he calls an “intrapreneur” approach, in which individual employees take responsibility for their ideas, and his innovation team (now about a half-dozen staffers and contractors) helps them shepherd their ideas from concept to reality. Since Flores works within the IT group, the focus is on ideas with “some sort of IT enablement or IT component. If it’s an idea related to boarding planes, there will be some sort of IT component on the back end,” he says.

Flores developed a scorecard to help evaluate employees’ ideas, which he nicknamed RAMP:

Return: How long will it take to return the investment? Within one year receives the highest score, and within three years receives the lowest score.

Advantage: Is the idea groundbreaking and new, or already existing?

Market: Is there a market for this idea? Is it for every single customer, or does it just touch a subset?

Potential: How likely is that this idea will be implemented? Are there too many components that could complicate the rollout, or is this something that could be up and running in a couple of months?

The scoring system, Flores says, helped ensure that his team was devoting its energy to ideas “with more meat on them.”

Flores consciously modeled parts of the program after the way entrepreneurs raise money from angel investors and venture capitalists. A team of a half-dozen executives, from managing directors to vice presidents at United, acted a bit like venture capitalists, giving feedback and ranking the employees on their Proof of Concept plans using the RAMP scorecard. A handful of the ideas received seed money, and currently one idea is in the patent process. And while the program has been put on pause for the time being, it helped put United on the list of finalists at the most recent Chicago Innovation Awards. (Flores says the program worked well, but notes that for the time being, “we have plenty of ideas,” and he didn’t have the resources to manage an “always open” call for ideas.)

People who’ve participated the program have said that even though their idea wasn’t selected, they learned how to build a business plan or experience what it’s like to work on a completely different side of the business.

Creating New Mobile Experiences for Passengers and Employees

Flores also oversees the day-to-day Mobile Technology being developed in United’s Flight Operations, which, along with other groups at the company, went into overdrive in the last year.

Some examples from around the company (Flores’ team was responsible for the last two):

  • Uber integration: Late last year, United was the first airline to offer Uber’s on-demand ride service to its customers through the United Airlines mobile app on their iOS or Android devices.
  • Passports: Last August, United was the first U.S. airline to offer customers the ability to scan a passport to check-in for international flights and obtain a boarding pass using the airline’s app. United’s app has been downloaded by 13 million people since it was released in 2013.
  • At Newark Liberty Airport, United Airlines has distributed 6,000 iPads spread throughout gate areas and nearby restaurants so customers can order food and watch the status of their flights.
  • iPhone 6 Plus: In 2015, United will arm more than 23,000 of its flight attendants with their own iPhone 6 Plus. In addition to speeding the sale of food, beverage and other retail items onboard, the iPhones will give attendants access to company email,, the company intranet, as well as policies and procedure manuals. Next up: Replace attendants’ printed safety manuals with iPhone versions, as well as the ability to stream real-time reporting of aircraft cabin issues and repairs. Passenger-focused applications are also being planned.
  • iPad Air2 for the pilots: The iPad Air2 devices update the first-generation iPads, which United began rolling out to pilots in 2011 to reduce paperwork. The newer iPads are designed to give pilots the latest weather updates, cockpit procedure manuals, as well as help them keep track of their time on-the-job to make sure they’re not violating FAA regulations.

Flores says a key question for his team is, “What’s the right device to empower employees to make their job more efficient?”

In the near future, he envisions that his group will be brainstorming about things such as how to incorporate wearable technologies, beacons (which can deliver content based on a person’s location), NFC technology (often used for payments), and customer data. For instance, the flight attendants using their new iPhones to handle credit card transactions will now be able to collect data that United couldn’t easily gather before. “We’re creating new opportunities to understand our customers and their retail purchase trends,” Flores says.

Innovation Challenges

Flores says there are four key challenges that he grapples with — challenges that will be familiar to many innovation executives operating inside big companies.

1. Culture. At most established companies — United was founded in 1926 — culture and the “this is the way we’ve always done it” attitude are powerful forces innovators must contend with.

2. Getting the right stakeholders involved when projects relate to their divisions, and avoiding turf issues.

3. Keeping people motivated and engaged in the innovation program — even though most people’s ideas won’t be developed.

4. Risk. “Trying to define how much risk your company is willing to take — that’s always a moving target,” Flores says.

To see a slide presentation from Flores on making companies “intrapraneur-friendly,” visit our Resource Center.