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United Cites Benefits Of Moving Operations To Arlington Heights From Chicago

Date: December 3, 2021

By Danny Ecker, Crain's Chicago

United Airlines Holdings Inc. plans to move the network operations center that coordinates its flights globally to Arlington Heights 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. 

The airline plans to make a new complex in Arlington Heights its primary nerve center effective April 1, with Willis serving as a backup, according to David Kensick, United's managing director of global operations. United closed a deal Wednesday to purchase the property at 1501 W. Shure Drive in the northwest suburb, 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.

A United spokesman declined to disclose how much the company paid for the 200,000-square-foot property, but a source familiar with the agreement said the purchase price was likely more than $50 million. United bought the single-story building from a venture of Northbrook-based investor Torburn Partners, which had owned the building since acquiring it in 2013 as part of a broader $28 million sale-leaseback deal with Finnish telecom giant Nokia Siemens. Torburn in 2018 sold off a neighboring office at 1421 Shure Drive for nearly $41 million.

A Torburn spokeswoman declined to comment on the United sale.

Kensick said it became apparent during the pandemic that the expansive floor plan in the Arlington Heights building allowed for "better communication and collaboration" among workers than at Willis Tower and provided ample space for the airline to grow its operations center as it grows and adds more flight dispatchers.

"It's just a really great space for us and provides a better work environment," Kensick said. United's previous backup operations center was at its former headquarters building in Elk Grove Village. Kensick said that location formally shut down in July.

The decision to move the primary operations center to the suburbs 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.

Kesnick 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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