United Airlines HQ Closed As Basement Floods

A flooded electrical substation has caused United Airlines to temporarily close its downtown Chicago headquarters. Heavy rains about ten days ago put the substation underwater, cutting electricity supplies to the building where United has its HQ. As a result, employees were evacuated, and nearly two weeks later, the building remains closed.

United’s HQ has been closed for nearly 2 weeks after an electrical substation was flooded. Photo: Getty Images

Core operations center closed as power fails in building

United Airlines’ HQ occupies 16 floors of the 110-story Willis Tower. The building was formerly known as Sears Tower and is one of Chicago’s most iconic skyscrapers. Among other things, the airline maintains its primary operations center in the building. The outage saw flight dispatchers evacuated via stairwells.

Heavy rains around the city over the weekend of May 15 – 17 resulted in the Chicago River flooding the downtown area. The power supplies reportedly failed around 04:00 on Monday, May 18. In the immediate aftermath, NBC News was reporting 25 feet of water in the Willis Tower basement.

There are several basement levels in the building. Within days, the flooding receded in the area where the substation is, and work commenced to repair the damage. However, Willis Tower has not yet re-opened.

Combined with high numbers of employees already working from home, minimal employees would have been in the building at the time.

United’s HQ occupies floors of the iconic Willis Tower. Photo: Chris6d via Wikimedia Commons

Back-up operations centers and sophisticated contingencies

The airline has several back-up contingencies in place, allowing flight operations to continue seamlessly. There is a back-up flight operations center in downtown Chicago just a few blocks from Willis Tower. This site is said to be able to handle about 75% of United Airline’s operations.

Operations centers are the nerve centers of airlines. They track flights, manage crews, and troubleshoot problems as they arise. For big airlines like United with around the clock global operations, these centers are manned 24/7 every day of the year.

There’s another back-up operations center at the airline’s former headquarters at Elk Grove in suburban Chicago. While this site was due to be demolished, United Airlines has presciently kept it running to facilitate safe social distancing amongst its operations employees.

United’s Chicago operations center. Photo: United Airlines

There’s also an operations center in Houston, and the airline could be run from there. However, it takes time to get critical employees from Chicago down to Texas. In normal times United Airlines has thousands of flights around the world each day, so the airline needs back-up facilities within close distance of their HQ to keep flights running smoothly.

New operations center in Arlington Heights delayed

Not yet complete is a back-up operations center being built at Arlington Heights, Illinois. Building re-configuration was well underway until the 2020 travel downturn saw United Airlines freeze a lot of its capital works program. United Airlines is thought to be locating this back-up center in the former 1455 Building that Nokia used. It is believed to have a lot of the utility and telecommunications facilities that United would need.

In addition, there were operation center outposts in Guam and London. These are souvenirs from the 2010 merger with Continental Airlines. It isn’t clear whether these operations centers remain functional in 2020.

United’s decision to leave Elk Grove for downtown Chicago caused some controversy amongst United’s employees. There have also been issues with flooding before at Willis Tower, and plenty of people question the wisdom of having electrical substations in basements in flood-prone areas. While the building remains closed and plenty of people have opinions, United’s operations continued without a hitch, indicating their back up strategies work fine.