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Developing a strategy to reduce airport wait times

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For everyone who’s tired of long lines at the airport, modern technology offers some hope.

Computer vision and data analytics can generate real-time information about operations, creating a major opportunity to reduce wait times. In fall 2021, United Airlines asked a team of students in MIT Sloan Action Learning’s Enterprise Management Lab (EM-Lab) to develop a strategy for leveraging such technologies to reduce wait times in their airport lobbies.

“The company was considering introducing new visualization technology to analyze real-time customer flow at the airport,” says Ayaka Fujisaki, who teamed up on this project with fellow MBA students Abdulaziz Ahmed Ben Baz, Ness Dong, James Hogan, and George McConnell. “So, our project goal was to propose preliminary recommendations to help United reduce customer wait times through its lobby operations by leveraging the data from the new technology.”

Working with the support of Faculty Mentor Donald Triner, an MIT lecturer and previous director of the operations coordination division for the US Department of Homeland Security, the students began by conducting in-person interviews at some of United’s major airports, which enabled them to identify the expectations of different customer segments. They found, for example, that families are willing to wait longer for service than are business customers.

The team also interviewed United staffers to identify operational pain points and spoke with experts to identify industry trends. According to Fujisaki, they worked to understand both the customer point of view and the needs of United Airlines so that they could develop a plan that would bridge the gap between the current and the desired state of operations.

To provide benchmarking, the students detailed several examples of how others—from Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam to the Walt Disney Co.—have used real-time flow data to improve operations. “Our benchmark covered not only airlines and airports but also some different industries such as entertainment and retail,” Fujisaki says.

After completing their analysis, the students made a presentation to senior leaders at United, recommending the company take three steps to improve wait times: employ technology to speed check-in; segment lines based on check-in data; and gather real-time data to allocate resources.

Ultimately, the students’ work helped justify a business case to launch the new operational analytics approach.

“The team was extremely action-oriented and delivered on every challenge,” says Rob Bence, director of digital technology – airports (global) at United.

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Triner says the project led to great results in part because United was such a good host—responsive to the students’ questions and requests and willing to connect the team with key personnel. “United was a first-time EM-Lab host,” he says, “so it was great to watch the host and student team mature in their roles.”

And while the project helped United gain new insights into its customer base and its industry, the students say they may have gained even more.

Ayaka Fujisaki | MBA '23
This experience boosted my confidence. This project was a great opportunity for our team to test our professional experience and new learnings in the real business world.

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