Why Airlines, MROs Should Scrap 'Return to Normal'

United Airlines Chief Operating Officer Jon Roitman
Jon Roitman, United Airlines chief operating officer
Credit: Aviation Week Network

A lot of us speculate about when life will “return to normal,” but that indicates returning to a state that existed in the past—and none of us personally or professionally can forget what we’ve gone through in the pandemic. And that’s not all bad.

Instead of “return to normal,” United Airlines uses the phrase “return to new,” Chief Operating Officer Jon Roitman said during my interview with him at the live MRO Americas Conference on April 29. Rather than hibernating through the pandemic, “we’ve been working really hard to rewire or modernize everything we do at United, especially within operations,” he said. An example of a fundamental shift that will allow it to “return to new” is its use of metrics and artificial intelligence (AI).

If United managed with the “tried-and-true metrics that all airlines use,” including departure performance, “we might not be making the best decisions for customers,” he said, because it would leave some behind in order to depart on time. By providing more flexibility to gate agents and crews, the airline has saved thousands of connections.

“We’re using really sophisticated data analytics to predict and really leaning into AI to arm our operators with the very best customer-insight information that they can use alongside traditional metrics,” said Roitman.

He added that United is doing the majority of its digital technology support in-house.

While the airline’s flight attendants use mobile devices and its more than 4,000 line maintenance technicians use iPads for day-to-day operations, “we plan to expand [iPad use] to base maintenance, facility maintenance, ground support equipment maintenance and others [because] what we’re finding is a really good ecosystem allows us to take all of these disparate tools and bring them into one place, one interface,” Roitman said, so employees have “the best information at their fingertips to work efficiently, productively, reliability and safely.”

What are you doing to plan for the “new”?

Thankfully, our brains are constantly changing. Billions of neurons continually reorganize synaptic connections, something called neuroplasticity. To embrace the new, focus on the positive and think about the future, to get out of “COVID-brain.”

Airlines and MROs are increasingly seeing several positives, as witnessed at our MRO Americas Conference & Exhibition April 27-29.

As Roitman said, “We are seeing some promising indicators relative to demand, but we are cau­tious­­­ly optimistic.”

I’ll take “cautiously optimistic”—as long as we are focused on “the new,” too.


I’m so proud of my colleagues and our Aviation Week publications for being named finalists for 17 Aerospace Media Awards and 13 Jesse H. Neal Awards, both announced on May 10. That includes two Aerospace Media Award nominations and one Neal Award finalist nomination for Inside MRO, as well as a Neal short list for our MRO TransAtlantic Virtual event. This is truly an honor.

Lee Ann Shay

As executive editor of MRO and business aviation, Lee Ann Shay directs Aviation Week's coverage of maintenance, repair and overhaul (MRO), including Inside MRO, and business aviation, including BCA.