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United Air to Move Operations Staff to Suburb in Blow to Chicago

Date: December 3, 2021

By , Bloomberg

United Airlines Holdings Inc. plans to move the network operations center that coordinates its flights globally to a Chicago suburb next year, slashing headcount at the carrier’s world headquarters at Blackstone Inc.’s Willis Tower.

The move was announced internally on Thursday and would affect about 900 employees such as managers and technical support staff, United said. About 400 flight dispatchers could eventually join them. The airline is in contract talks with their union, whose collective bargaining agreement requires that they be based at Willis, according to Craig Symons, the union’s leader. 

Another 2,500 headquarters staffers will continue to work at the iconic skyscraper formerly known as Sears Tower, where United is plowing millions of dollars into renovations. 

That’s “roughly the same number of employees we had in the city 10 years ago,” company spokesman Charlie Hobart said by email. “In terms of whether United is considering moving its headquarters out of downtown, the answer is no. We remain committed to the city of Chicago.”

The airline plans to make a new complex in Arlington Heights, Illinois, its primary nerve center effective April 1, with Willis serving as a back-up, David Kensick, a managing director for the airline, wrote in a memo viewed by Bloomberg News. United closed a deal Wednesday to purchase the suburban facility, which had played a supporting role since it was opened last year by providing socially distant work stations for staff during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The decision comes as many office towers in Chicago’s business district are partially filled and struggling to recover from the pandemic and last year’s social unrest. Boeing Co.’s nearby corporate headquarters are said to be desolate, with many executives and employees still working remotely. The NFL’s Chicago Bears have been considering a move to Arlington Heights from the city.

Kensick said moving operations closer to United’s main hub at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport “offers crucial advantages, particularly the ability to support the anticipated growth of our airline, given the facility’s larger size and potential for expansion.”

He also touted characteristics of the suburban center such as the power redundancy provided by two backup generators. Flooding cut off electricity to the Willis Tower last year, forcing United to close its operations center and evacuate flight dispatchers through darkened stairwells of the 110-story building. 

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