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At United Airlines, we operate in a data-rich environment, but reading and understanding those mountains of information in a meaningful way can sometimes feel like a daunting task. That is why in 2014 we rolled out our Green Cross for Safety award-winning "data visualization" tool.
The idea came from a project that I observed at the University of New Haven. Criminology students were documenting violent crime statistics, then putting their data into an interactive interface to better identify trends. My immediate thought was, "Why can't these same techniques be used with airline data?"
We invited several of the students to participate in an internship, where they documented things such as lost-time injuries and aircraft damage at each of our stations, then analyzed that data and put it into a graphic map so that our managers across the system could easily see the areas of impact. It was important for us to make the visualizations multi-lingual and intuitive, so that anyone – from our CEO to the newest frontline employee – could look at a map and come to the same conclusion. By seeing the data as more than just numbers on a spreadsheet, we could pinpoint exactly where we should focus our improvement efforts.
The results have been astounding: Over the past two years, we have seen a 23% decline in employee injuries, a 40% decline in baggage handler injuries, and ground aircraft damage has decreased by 29%.
Thanks to our ability to map our data trends, we saw that the majority of our aircraft damage occurred when moving jet bridges into place. We dug deeper and found that if we painted a strip underneath the jet bridge doors and a target dot below our aircraft doors, giving our ground crew members a point of reference to aim for, we could significantly reduce those incidents.
It was also evident that some injuries were a common occurrence among individuals performing specific tasks, such as handling baggage. By making small adjustments to the way they scan and load bags, we were able to better train them to take precautions against those types of injuries.
Through visualization, we've found a way to make our data more functional. Seeing things such as our performance by terminal, concourse, gate and time of day has been eye-opening. More importantly, it's allowing us to ensure that our employees are safe while on the job.
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