United Airlines plans on hiring 1,800 local employes — many of whom will be trained at a newly expanded training facility. Photo via United.com

A new study highlights United Airlines’ multibillion-dollar impact on the Houston economy as the company eyes the addition of 1,800 local employees this year.

The study, done by Chicago-based consulting firm Compass Lexecon, shows United’s hub at George Bush Intercontinental Airport along with spending by foreign visitors arriving on flights operated by United and its partners contribute an estimated $5.3 billion in annual gross domestic product (GDP) in Texas.

Furthermore, the study says United’s direct employment in Houston accounts for $1.2 billion in annual economic activity, and the local hub indirectly supports 56,000 local jobs. Houston is one of United’s seven U.S. hubs.

“United continues to be a great partner and business leader in the city of Houston, connecting Houstonians to the world and investing in vital infrastructure projects that help enhance the travel experience for millions of travelers,” Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner says in a news release.

The economic impact study was released in conjunction with the opening of the $32 million expansion of United’s flight attendant training center in Houston. Highlights of the 56,000-square-foot facility include a roughly 400-seat auditorium, and a 125,000-gallon pool and mock fuselage for practicing evacuation of a plane during a water landing.

This year, the Chicago-based airline is on track to add 15,000 workers, including 4,000 flight attendants. United employs more than 11,000 people in Houston and plans to hire 1,800 more in 2023.

The airline plans to train more than 600 flight attendants per month at the enlarged Houston facility.

“The best flight attendants in the industry deserve the best, most modern training facility in the country,” United CEO Scott Kirby says in a news release. “This expansion project is yet another example of an investment we made during the depths of the pandemic that will support our employees, further improve our ability to deliver great service, and set United up for success in 2023 and beyond.”

New United flight attendants will go through a six-and-a-half-week training course at the Houston facility and then return every 18 months to stay up to date on flight qualifications.

United posted profit of $737 million last year, down 75.5 percent from the pre-pandemic year of 2019, on operating revenue of nearly $44.5 billion, up 3.9 percent from 2019.

In 2022, the airline’s investment arm, United Ventures, announced an investment of up to $37.5 million in Houston-based NEXT Renewable Fuels. The company, which produces renewable fuel for the aviation sector, is developing a biofuel refinery in Oregon.

NEXT plans to go public this year through a SPAC merger with a publicly traded shell company.

The United and Occidental investment arms are planning to form a joint venture to commercialize the technology. Photo courtesy of Cemvita

Houston biotech startup scores $5M to fuel sustainable aviation innovation

seeing green

Houston cleantech startup Cemvita Factory has scored a $5 million investment from United Airlines Ventures, the venture capital fund of the Chicago-based airline.

The equity investment is aimed at propelling commercialization of sustainable aviation fuel through a process involving carbon dioxide (CO2) and synthetic microbes.

Oxy Low Carbon Ventures, a subsidiary of Houston-based Occidental Petroleum that’s a founding investor in Cemvita, and United Airlines Ventures are financing the startup’s work on sustainable jet fuel. United Airlines operates a hub at George Bush Intercontinental/Houston Airport.

If that work pans out, the United and Occidental investment arms plan to form a joint venture to commercialize the technology. The joint venture might include construction of plants for the production of sustainable aviation fuel.

Sustainable aviation fuel, known as SAF, is an alternative to jet fuel that uses non-petroleum feedstock and offers lower greenhouse gas emissions.

Founded by brother-sister team Moji and Tara Karimi in 2017, Cemvita Factory relies on synthetic biology to turn carbon dioxide into chemicals and alternative fuels, including SAF. The startup, founded in 2017, is among the first companies to employ this technology to support heavy-industry decarbonization and find ways to take advantage of microbiology to convert CO2 into fuel.

“The use of SAF is a promising approach that we believe can significantly reduce global emissions from aviation and further decarbonization initiatives to combat climate change,” Richard Jackson, president of operations for U.S. onshore resources and carbon management at Occidental, says in a news release.

Cemvita is the third SAF-related startup to receive an investment from United Airlines Ventures.

The partnership among Cemvita, Occidental, and United is among many initiatives seeking to ramp up production of SAF. For instance, the U.S. Department of Energy is collaborating with the U.S. Department of Transportation, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and other federal agencies to develop a strategy for scaling SAF technology.

The global SAF market is projected to grow from $219 million in 2021 to more than $15.7 billion by 2030, according to Research and Markets.

The International Air Transport Association says more than 370,000 flights have been fueled by SAF since 2016. Over 26.4 million gallons of SAF were produced last year.

Last month in France, aircraft manufacturer Airbus flew a A380 test jet for about three hours with one of the four engines operating solely on SAF. The three other engines ran on conventional fuel.

In December 2021, United flew a 737 MAX 8 jet from Chicago O’Hare International Airport to Washington Reagan National Airport outside Washington, D.C., with one of the two engines operating only on SAF. It was the first commercial flight with passengers aboard to use SAF in that capacity. The other engine ran on conventional fuel.

United CEO Scott Kirby, who was aboard the historic flight, said the flight was “not only a significant milestone for efforts to decarbonize our industry, but when combined with the surge in industry commitments to produce and purchase alternative fuels, we’re demonstrating the scalable and impactful way companies can join together and play a role in addressing the biggest challenge of our lifetimes.”

For now, airlines are allowed to use up SAF for up to 50 percent of the fuel on commercial flights.

This new service helps customers get simple, fast answers for travel questions at the airport. Photo courtesy of United Airlines

United Airlines launches new service to help travelers skip the lines at Bush Intercontinental

simpler skies

Houston travelers on United Airlines now have access to a new, virtual, on-demand customer service aimed at simple, contact-free, real-time information and support. The new feature is available at George Bush International Airport, as well as Chicago O'Hare, and will roll out to other hubs by the end of the year, according to a press release.

Dubbed Agent on Demand, the new United service is available on any mobile device to call, text, or video chat live with an agent. Customers can scan a QR code displayed on signage throughout United's hub airports, or access the platform through self-service kiosks. From there, customers will be connected to an agent by phone, chat or video, based on their preference, according to the airline.

Travelers can get answers on seat assignments, boarding times, upgrades, standby list, flight status, rebooking, and more. Agent on Demand is aimed at convenience; customers cab go virtual as opposed to standing in line for answers.

For international travelers, more than 100 languages will be available via chat. (Customers type in their preferred language and the messages will be automatically transcribed in English for the agents — and in the selected language for the customer.)

United is the first airline to debut this technology, which is aimed at safety during the pandemic and convenience, United notes in a press release.

"We know how important it is for our customers to have more options for a contactless travel experience and this tool makes it easy to quickly receive personalized support directly from a live agent at the airport while maintaining social distancing," said Linda Jojo, United's executive vice president for technology and chief digital officer, in a statement. "Agent on Demand allows customers to bypass waiting in line at the gate and seamlessly connect with customer service agents from their mobile device, ensuring they continue to receive the highest levels of service while also prioritizing their health and safety."

In late November, United announced the expansion of its customer COVID-19 testing efforts to include flights departing Houston to select destinations in Latin America and the Caribbean.

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This article originally ran on CultureMap.

Houston-based FlightAware, a software company that tracks flights, is growing. Cameron Casey/Pexels

Houston flight-tracking software company grows its local and international presence

taking flight

FlightAware LLC's business success has, for the most part, flown under the radar in Houston.

Many travelers know about the B2C flight-tracking functionality of FlightAware. "That's a very, very competitive space. We play in that space, but it's not our core business," founder and CEO Daniel Baker says.

These days, the privately held Houston company earns most its revenue from the B2B data it provides to airlines and other aviation clients, according to Baker. He declines to reveal revenue figures, but notes that the company — which bills itself as the world's largest flight-tracking and flight data platform — hasn't taken a penny of outside funding since it started in 2005.

Today, FlightAware employs about 110 people, with the majority of them located in Houston, Baker says. The company also maintains offices in Austin, New York City, London, and Singapore.

By the end of 2020, the companywide workforce should exceed 135, as FlightAware aims to add three new hires per month this year in areas such as Internet of Things, data science, sales, and administration, Baker says. Most of the new employees will work in Houston.

Baker says FlightAware takes an aggressive approach to hiring, with the goal of bringing aboard "really awesome people" who share levels of talent, collaboration, and "culture fit" similar to those of current employees.

By the end of 2021, FlightAware likely will run out of room in its 24,000-square-foot office at 11 Greenway Plaza in the Greenway/Upper Kirby area, Baker says. That means FlightAware will need to take about 15,000 additional square feet at 11 Greenway Plaza or relocate to a different building, he says. The company moved into its current home in 2017 from a 14,000-square-foot office at 8 Greenway Plaza.

Baker, who's a private pilot and a board member of the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum, launched the company 15 years ago as a way to combine two passions: software development and aviation.

"It was originally a hobby, and it became a business," Baker says. "It's an unlikely story. We're really, really fortunate that the timing was right."

Although FlightAware started off tracking flights in the general aviation space, it has since expanded to supply aviation data to both travelers and businesses. Each month, about 15 million passengers use the FlightAware app, which earns praise from a slew of travel critics.

Among flight-tracking apps, FlightAware "is a bit of a Swiss army knife," Condé Nast Traveler magazine observes. The FlightAware app lets you follow flights in real time, including where an incoming plane is coming from, how close it is to arriving, and what kind of weather it's encountering en route, the magazine notes. In addition, the app can send push notifications about arrivals, departures, gate changes, flight delays, and flight cancellations.

Now, FlightAware relies on the consumer-facing technology "as a stepping stone to have a bigger impact," Baker says. "Every project that we undertake is larger than the last one."

That "bigger impact" involves cranking out data that enables commercial airlines, cargo carriers, business aviation companies, and air traffic controllers to be proactive instead of reactive regarding flight activity, he says.

FlightAware's corporate customers include United Airlines, Hawaiian Airlines, business-jet operator NetJets and GPS technology provider Garmin. Baker says a North American airline that he declines to name will soon roll out FlightAware technology to its airport gate agents.

For airlines, FlightAware's software delivers data to cut down, among other issues, on problems with flight delays, gate assignments, and flight connections, Baker says. FlightAware pulls data from its network of more than 25,000 receivers on all seven continents.

While the consumer-oriented features of FlightAware's technology face competition from the likes of FlightStats, FlightView, and The Flight Tracker, the B2B landscape is less populated. Over the years, corporate giants like Airbus, Boeing, and IBM have tackled aviation data on their own but have wound up forging data partnerships with FlightAware, according to Baker.

"We see every potential competitor as a future customer," Baker says.

Mario Diaz, CEO of the Houston Airport System addresses the crowd gathered to celebrate the Apollo 11 anniversary this weekend. Natalie Harms/InnovationMap

Overheard: Aerospace and airport VIPs commemorate Space City Month at IAH

Out of this world

Houston, we have liftoff of a space-filled weekend. Saturday, July 20, marks the 50th anniversary of Apollo 11 touching down on the moon, and that calls for a celebration, as well as a commemoration.

Houston First, Space Center Houston, NASA, and United Airlines teamed up to host an international delegation at George Bush Intercontinental Airport in Terminal C on July 17. Various space or Space City VIPs took the stage to discuss their memories of the lunar landing and the role Houston played in the monumental event.

“Our hope is to be an airport system that reflects Houston’s role as a leader on the global stage and to have our city standing as truly international business and cultural center. With both Bush and Hobby airports having earned four-star ratings, we are built to meet those expectations.”

— Mario Diaz, executive director at Houston Airport System. Bush Intercontinental Airport is also celebrating its 50th anniversary since opening in 1969.

“It is the innovative spirit of the people of this city that help give the world our new perspective. We are all neighbors, and we must all face the future as one. How wonderful that understanding is now with Houston having become the nation’s most diverse city in the country with one in four Houstonians being foreign born.”

— Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner, referencing a ranking released earlier this year.

“This week, we are celebrating this anniversary and time when we did so much more than we thought we could. … [the Apollo mission] was an inspiration to us then, and I think continues to be an inspiration to all of us even now.”

Peggy Whitson, former NASA astronaut who holds the record for the United States for her 665 days in space.

“Houston is the Space City, because the Johnson Space Center is the home of human space flight. As you know, ‘Houston’ was the very first word spoken from the surface of the moon. And, it wasn’t a fluke. They knew who they needed to talk to, and it was Houston.”

— Mark Geyer, director of NASA's Johnson Space Center.

“In roughly three years, we will have astronauts back in the region of the moon — this time women and men. And soon after that, back onto the surface of the moon again in our mission called Artemis.”

— Geyer continues to say of NASA's lunar exploration plans.

“Just a few weeks ago, [Space Center Houston] inaugurated the completely restored mission control operations room from the Apollo era. We’ve done a restoration and taken it back to the 1960s, and it appears as if the flight controllers just got up to take a break.”

— William Harris, CEO of Space Center Houston. The organization is NASA's official tourism arm and houses 250,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor exhibition space.

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10 can't-miss Houston business and innovation events for February

where to be

It's time to look at what's on the agenda for February for Houston innovators — from pitch competitions to networking events.

Here's a roundup of events not to miss this month. Mark your calendars and register accordingly.

Note: This post might be updated to add more events.

Feb. 8 — Digital Marketing Luncheon

Join Insperity, a partner of The Cannon, and digital marketing expert, Danny Gavin, at The Cannon Downtown for a lunch and learn.

The event is Wednesday, February 8, at noon, at The Cannon Downtown. Click here to register.

Feb. 9 — Innovation on Tap: Fred Higgs, Engineering at Rice University

Discuss research in the speaker’s engineering lab at Rice University on key Industry 4.0 technologies, namely additive manufacturing.

The event is Thursday, February 9, at 4 pm, at the Ion. Click here to register.

February 10 — Women in Leadership Conference 

The 23rd annual Women in Leadership Conference will be held in-person at Rice University. The conference has been a beacon of inspiration in the Houston community, empowering women to accomplish their career goals. In panel discussions and interactive workshops, attendees hear from leaders across different industries, explore various approaches to leadership, and discuss future opportunities for success.

The event is Friday, February 10, at 8 am, at McNair Hall at Rice University. Click here to register.

Feb. 15 — Real Talk from Real VCs

Join this event for a candid fireside chat on venture capital and its role in supporting and growing innovative startups.

The event is Wednesday, February 15, at 5:30 pm, at the Ion. Click here to register.

Feb. 16 — Engage VC: Lerer Hippeau

Lerer Hippeau is an early-stage venture capital firm founded and operated in New York City. Since 2010, they have invested in entrepreneurs who embody audacity, endurance, and winning mindset – good people with great ideas who aren't afraid to do hard things. Join the HX Venture Fund to hear Caitlin Strandberg, Partner at Lerer Hippeau discuss her perspective on how to build and scale a great company, what early-stage investors are looking for, why Houston, and market trends among other topics.

The event is Thursday, February 16, at 8:30 am, at the Ion. Click here to register.

Feb. 16 — Female Founders and Funders

Calling all rockstar female founders and investors in the Houston area. Mark your calendars for this month's Female Founders and Funders meetup. Coffee and breakfast is provided and the event is free to attend.

The event is Thursday, February 16, at 9 am, at Sesh Coworking. Click here to register.

Feb. 21 — Web3 & HOU: Demystifying the Web3 Space Panel I

Join us to learn more about Web3 and its numerous applications.

The event is Tuesday, February 21, at 6 pm, at the Ion. Click here to register.

Feb. 22 — The Trailblazer’s Guide to Cultivating Authenticity

In this fun and interactive workshop presented by Erica D’Eramo of Two Peirs Consulting, we’ll look at how to foster a leadership style that works for you, even in the absence of role models.

The event is Wednesday, February 22, at 2 pm, at Sesh Coworking. Click here to register.

Feb. 22 — Houston Startup Showcase

The Houston Startup Showcase is a year-long series of monthly pitch competitions. Founders will pitch at the Ion and compete for the grand prize package. Watch the startups pitch their company and see who the judges will name the champion of the Houston Startup Showcase 2023.

The event is Wednesday, February 22, at 6 pm, at the Ion. Click here to register.

Feb. 23 — Navigating Innovation in the Corporate World

Join us for a fireside chat with leaders from Houston's largest employers, including Microsoft and Chevron to discuss how they have navigated successful careers in technology and innovation.

The event is Thursday, February 23, at 11:30 am, at the Ion. Click here to register.

Feb. 27-March 2 — Houston Tech Rodeo

The Houston Tech Rodeo is a conference showcasing the best and brightest of the Houston startup community in the region and beyond by putting investors, entrepreneurs, industry leaders, and creative minds in a room to talk about the biggest innovations and the future of tech sandwiched by some happy hours and friendly competition.

The events run Monday, February 27, through Thursday, March 2, at various locations in Houston. Click here to register.

Note: This post might be updated to add more events.


Houston innovator aims to connect the dots between data science and phenomena

eyes to the sky

As artificial intelligence continues to expand its sphere of influence, Spring-based expert Joe Schurman is looking to take this technology to an out-of-this-world space.

With his background includes working with advising defense and aerospace organizations like NASA, Schurman's latest venture PhenomAInon is perfectly aligned with what he’s been working towards since 2019. The company aims to be a multi-tiered subscription service and application that will be the world’s first cloud native data and AI platform for phenomenon-based data analysis that can analyze data from any source for space domain awareness and threat detection, according to Schurman.

The platform aims to provide end-to-end data and AI analysis, publish insights, build community, and provide cloud, data, and software consulting. PhenomAInon deploys data and AI services alongside modern data and AI engineering, per the website, to surface insights to explorers, researchers, organizations, publications, and communities through advanced data and AI analysis. Schurman has worked with the U.S. government's task force for unidentified anomalous phenomenon — any perceived aerial phenomenon that cannot be immediately identified or explained — known as UAPTF. The tool will run sensitive information and then get back custom video analysis. The public version of the tool will give the public the option to view videos and cases, and form their own analysis.

“We are working together with multiple teams both public and private to continue to curate the data sets, clear documents for public review, and provide advanced analytics and AI capabilities never seen before to the public,” Schurman tells InnovationMap. “From a data and analytics perspective, we are applying machine learning and advanced analytics to find correlations and anomalies in the incident reports across multiple data sets.

"Some of these are public, some are private, and some we are clearing for public review," he continues. "The analytics will go far beyond incident reporting and showcase heat maps, correlative incident maps to key private and public sector facilities, and trends analysis never reported — e.g. incident reporting correlated with time, weather, FAA, and drone flight data, etc. We also have a new content analysis platform where users will be able to eventually run their own AI and ML analysis on their own videos.”

Schurman was first able to show this to the world in 2019, when as an adviser for To The Stars Academy of Arts and Science, or TTSA. He also appeared on History Channel’s “Unidentified: Inside America's UFO Investigation” to show the Pentagon’s former Advanced Aerospace Threat Identification Program head and TTSA Director of Special Programs Luis Elizondo how the AI platform could be helpful in tracking data related to Unidentified Aerial Phenomena.

Now, PhenomAInon's app is a work-in-progress. While it soft launched in May of 2022, Schurman says they have several data sets that are awaiting clearing from the U.S. government, as well as the content analysis tool in development to launch possibly by the summer. Schurman also hopes they will curate the largest library of incident videos, images, and audio recordings.

The subject of UAP continues to attract new discussions from government officials and industry professions across aerospace, academia, and more. In Houston, Rice University's Woodson Research Center and its humanities department host one of the largest archives of UAP and paranormal data, notes, and research that include documents from CIA programs on remote viewing.

Schurman says he's looking to provide even more data and information in this space.

“This phenomenon, it’s implications to multiple aspects of our lives and possible security threats, all come down to a data problem and the organizations that have been in place to-date just have not had the level of cloud, data and AI engineering capabilities we take for granted and have access to in the private sector,” says Schurman. “My goal is to bring this all together, starting with PhenomAInon.”

Houston expert: Build workforce resiliency by investing in a long-term, low-cost internship strategy

guest column

Short-term talent shortages can feel overwhelming, especially if your company is navigating staff shortages, while also planning for future growth.

While internship programs can get a bad rap, there are many benefits to providing opportunities for early career professionals in any organization. By building a pipeline of eager, talented employees, and embedding institutional knowledge in your organization, you can reduce the burden of extra work on remaining employees and reinvigorate your business.

Get more engagement and develop champions at your company by incorporating three vital ingredients into your internship program strategy:

  1. Hire based on core values & interns’ ability to thrive at your company
  2. Invest in training
  3. Provide meaningful work

Build a strong team: hire based on ability to thrive 

To ensure your organization’s growth is coming from a diverse talent pool, build a hiring process around employees' future ability and core values, instead of what they have done in the past. Oftentimes, you’ll find that an intern’s coachability, willingness to learn and growth mindset are better determining factors towards future success than past experience.

During the recruitment and hiring process, ask your interns questions to probe values, interests, and passions. To determine if they have a growth mindset, you can ask, “What do you read in your time off to stay up to date with the latest trends in the industry? What did you learn yesterday?” or “Tell me about a time you received feedback. What did you do with this?”

Make sure that each intern that comes on board feels like a part of the team. Let them immerse themselves into your company’s culture, work environment, and industry by inviting them to your employee team-building activities, monthly company-wide conference calls, and other events that provide them with more context about your culture. Schedule weekly touchpoints with each intern to regularly check in on goals, their progress on tasks, and overall concerns. Not only will these meetings strengthen trust, but they will also position interns to succeed at your company.

Build resilience: invest in training

When you invest in a thoughtful, effective training experience, your interns will be more committed to the role because they’ll see the added effort you’re making towards their career.

Consider how your current training is structured and implemented so that your internship training experience is up to speed with the expectations of Gen-Z. Explore out-of-the-box training options, including coaching, virtual learning, and assessments that they will actually use.

In addition to the hard skills that are essential to supporting any company, ensure that you are training interns on core competencies. The National Association of Colleges and Employers identifies eight core competencies that are vital to career readiness: career & self-development, communication, critical thinking, equity & inclusion, leadership, professionalism, teamwork, and technology. When you teach interns these core competencies as soon as they join your organization, you will see an immediate boost in productivity, and you can objectively assess for future full-time employment.

Build momentum: provide meaningful work

After you’ve clearly mapped out your internship training experience, clearly outline projects from each of your company’s departments before you onboard interns. By planning ahead, and having a running list of projects that don’t require much explanation, you can give your interns a sense of purpose as soon as they join, which in turn will prevent bored interns from disengaging.

Ask interns what their goals are for their internship so you can not only help them make those goals a reality, but also tie their goals back to your company’s overall goals. As you offer meaningful enrichment opportunities, you will land top talent through your internship programs, and word will spread to bring in better talent for future internships.

Come out on top with a strong team

Businesses that take advantage of bringing on interns during a talent shortage can come out of hard times better prepared for the future. Once you have a strong and sustainable internship program, it will only grow and gain momentum.

Weather any storm that’s ahead by continuing to attract the best talent. Your company deserves it.

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Allie Danziger is the co-founder of Ampersand, an online training platform for businesses and professionals looking to level up their talent.