An airplane flying with images of people collaborating in its wake

Even though recreational and business air travel remains at a near standstill a year into the COVID-19 global pandemic, the skies remain speckled with commercial aircraft. Who, then, is zigzagging across the skies? 

Chris Busch of United Airlines might say that a more appropriate question is “What is zigzagging across the skies?” As the massive airline’s managing director of cargo for the Americas, Busch points out that many of the carrier’s flights have been converted to cargo-only missions – and some of that cargo is precious, indeed. The company was the first airline to carry a shipment of COVID-19 vaccine after the trial stage and has since become a key player in vaccine delivery.

However, pivoting from carrying people to carrying cargo wasn’t as easy as tearing out the passenger seats and replacing them with shipping containers. In fact, the seats are still intact. But the operational model that the airline had been following for decades is not. United had to rethink everything from aerodynamics, to finances, to logistics – and they only had a week to do it. 

The global supply chain was at risk

“When we started 2020, we had, I believe, the best air network in the world,” Bush recalls. “But overnight it went to us only having maybe six international flights. And that was a major, major shock.” 

It was shocking for more than just the obvious reasons, e.g., lost revenue from air travel and potential job insecurity for airline workers. Passenger flights are an integral link in the global supply chain – unused cargo space on commercial flights is used for shipping goods all over the world. Fewer passenger flights meant fewer opportunities to move cargo. 

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“So we had to figure out what to do,” says Bush. “We quickly came to the conclusion that we needed to find a way to keep our planes flying, continue to support our global supply chain customers, as well as keep as many of our employees as we could motivated and doing something good for the world.”

With this realization, United quickly developed the idea of flying passenger aircraft on cargo-only flights, which the airline had never done previously. This plan would help lay the groundwork for eventually delivering more than 10 million doses of the COVID-19 vaccine from multiple manufacturers.

7 days to develop and execute a plan 

United had one week to execute this high-flying pivot, and challenges were abundant. 

The first hurdle: transitioning to a remote work environment. “Pre-pandemic, part of the team was used to working from the road so, for some, the adjustment was something they were used to,” Bosch notes. “However, for the vast majority, adjusting to a full work-from-home environment was a learning process. Distributing, processing and digesting an extreme amount of information and changes has been challenging, but [we were committed] to service and communication with our customers, to help reassure them throughout this time.”

Bosch says the teams had to evaluate the financial aspects of the transition to ensure that the move wouldn’t cost the company more money than it made. The weights and balances of aircraft flying without passengers had to be calculated to ensure the flights would be safe and not result in excessive fuel consumption. They elected to keep the passenger cabins intact rather than remove seats, as the cargo demand was able to be fulfilled using underbelly storage, thanks to the absence of passenger baggage. 

They also had to consider the practical logistics of delivering cargo to the right cargo locations at airports, and how the cargo flights should be integrated into what remained of United’s actual passenger flights. 

Different divisions in the company convened remotely to collaborate on how best to execute the flights. Task forces sprang up. Personnel met via videoconference and collaborated over project management software, including Jira and Confluence, to move the effort along efficiently and urgently – as the ground continued to shift beneath the airline’s feet.

Shifting focus to vaccine viability 

The new workflows not only enabled United to successfully execute thousands of cargo-only flights, they helped prepare United for one of its most important roles to date: becoming one of the leading distributors of the COVID-19 vaccine, within the US and internationally.  

This effort began, naturally, with yet another task force to manage that specific process. “We’re used to handling pharmaceuticals, and have had temperature-controlled options for years,” Busch explains. “But the quantity and the urgency of the current vaccine delivery needs is a little bit different.” 

United developed strategies for managing the ventilation of the dry ice that chills the vaccines – it’s considered a dangerous good by air transport regulators, since it emits carbon dioxide. It also had to develop systems to get the cargo off the airplanes and onto delivery trucks quickly once on the ground. It’s the kind of quick turnaround that frequent fliers would be able to appreciate.

Busch adds that being quick to market with their strategy and solution-centric in its execution further helped them execute their massive pivot smoothly. “Transparent, real-time communication is critical, especially as we continue to navigate this ever-changing environment,” Bosch says. “Learning together and empowering each other throughout this time has only enhanced our cooperation with one another.”

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Getting primed for the return of passengers

As a result of this effort, United has now executed more than 8,000 cargo-only flights, and it’s gone smoothly enough – and lucratively enough – that the strategy is likely to remain key to the company’s recovery, even as the pandemic’s effects wear off and the traveling public takes to the air again. “The airline can’t operate without passengers – we all know that,” Bosch says. “But I do think that on the cargo side, we’ve shown what our team can do. That part will continue on in how we plan our networks in the future. Where is the cargo demand, and how does that match up with passenger flights?”

Eventually, United will start to see passenger numbers perk up, and the balance will shift back toward passenger flights. From the beginning, says Aaron McMillan, United’s managing director of operations policy and support, the company has given the passenger side the same attention as even the suddenly ascendant cargo component has received. This includes the same clear communication channels, its own teams and task forces, and its own collaborations with external partners, all working to ensure passengers feel comfortable boarding the airplanes. 

That effort has culminated with what the company calls the CleanPlus initiative. “We pulled a small army of people together across many different disciplines, from our operations teams to the planning groups that are part of the task force,” McMillan says. “They’re now dedicated to nothing but this activity.”

United has also partnered with the Cleveland Clinic and Clorox to develop strategies for disinfecting airplanes before customers board, and is fine-tuning those plans as the passenger seats start to fill up again.

Overall, the take-home for the team at United in response to all of these challenges seems to be that even the most sprawling and massive companies can indeed be light on their feet when the conditions demand it – as long as the communication stays clear and steady, and the collaboration open and willing. Busch says that the team-based strategies for addressing the challenges of this pandemic remain effective, the company will be able to keep its balancing act going well into the future.

From vacationers to vaccines: how United Airlines executed a mid-air pivot in only 7 days