Latest United Airlines Filing Suggests Headquarters Move Out Of Chicago

Over the summer United Airlines purchased 113 acres in Denver for $33 million. A spokesperson said at the time that the airline would expand their pilot training facility. It doesn’t take over 100 acres for that.

Then at the TD Cowen Global Transportation Conference, United CFO Gerald Laderman said there were “no imminent plans” to move their headquarters, noting that the airline has “a long-term lease at Willis Tower. We’ve been there for decades in Chicago. Denver is like Houston. We have lots of facilities in Houston.” Saying that no move is ‘imminent’ was not a denial.

  • They’ve already scaled down their presence in Chicago’s Willis Tower (née Sears Tower).

  • Their lease runs into 2032.

  • They cannot make an ‘imminent’ move because nothing has been built in Denver yet.

  • When Boeing’s tax benefits for locating in Chicago ran out, they decamped for Northern Virginia. United has clashed with city administration in Chicago. And United lacks a corporate campus like Delta and American now have.

In late December United filed a “large development review” plan with the City of Denver. Yes they’re going to initially going to add 12 flight simulators for pilot training. They are also working on a new corporate campus that would support 5,000 employees, enough to move all the workers at the current Chicago Willis Tower headquarters. According to the airline,

Concurrently, alongside the [flight training center], United is actively investigating programmatic needs to support corporate campus activity accommodating 5,000 employees in future phases of the project.

Enilria adds,

The location of the plot of land sitting on a rail line that runs to the airport and downtown is also perfectly positioned for a corporate headquarters. The location is also only 2 miles from the Frontier Airlines headquarters and nearly touching the plot of land for the former Frontier Airlines headquarters.

From 1937 to 1963, United Airlines corporate predecessor Continental Airlines was headquartered in Denver.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Chicago has lost its appeal as a place to work and it will only get worse.
    Add in the huge expensive terminal that ORD is building which will make that airport the most expensive large hub on a cost per enplaned passenger basis and Chicago’s role in aviation is going to take a hit.
    Losing United will be a big hit for Illinois and Chicago but the smoke has been building for years.

  2. Makes me genuinely sad. Back in my twenties when I was living in Chicago and decided it was worth focusing my air travel needs with one of the two dominant carriers (didn’t consider Southwest given my desire for regular personal intercontinental travel), I picked United in part because of their corporate support of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (I’m in the classical music industry). Not assuming that would go away if HQ shifts because they support the arts and culture in many of their hub cities but even so, to think of Chicago losing the HQ of a major company like United is a bummer.

  3. The mayor of Chicago has been ranting and raving at Texas about sending him people with no money while the moneyed flee. Go figure!

  4. The current mayor of Chicago is clueless. United has been watching carefully during the previous mayor and now. Chicago (my hometown for 70 years) is in a downward slide. Prop values are flat even river north!
    Glad I moved south and out of Pritzgers utopia.

  5. I don’t understand these comments regarding the Chicago Hub. Yes, while it very well may be that United moves their HQ to Denver, it is very unlikely they will de-Hub Chicago. As Scott Kirby has said, United has the best hubs to fill Polaris seats, where there are the most business travelers.

    Beyond the city that a HQ is located in, what is the obsession with a “campus HQ” vs a “tower HQ”??? Delta has a “campus” and United has a “tower” and both are massively more profitable than American that has a “campus”.

  6. Who could blame them. As you note, this isn’t a move you make overnight. The trends for Chicago and Illinois as a whole don’t lie. Imagine where it will be in another 10 years, because the clueless will not change. You need to start planing now. At this point you’re safer in Zimbabwe than you are in Chicago.

  7. @tim dunn The Chicago MSA does just fine. Still the third largest by a decent margin and with GDP/capita +/-5% to Atlanta/Denver MSA’s. Of course that pales in comparison to NYC/LA MSA’s with GDP/capita 30-40% higher than those three. Everyone likes to dunk on NYC/LA/Chicago but they punch way above their weight in GDP add, 12% of US population and 18+% of GDP.

    As a Atlanta resident for the last 10 years my opinion is that ATL is really beginning to show its age. The concourses T-D haven’t had any real work done on them in years and they show it. Intl/F is ok, but inflation adjusted ($1B) was a boondoggle for the 12 gates (and lousy parking) it added. And of course the fact that ATL is located a 60-90 min drive at least 10 hours of each day from the northern burbs is beyond inconvenient.

    Let’s face it. DEN airport is kind of a sh*thole and is also out in the middle of nowhere. UA is only thinking about moving there because Denver is willing to pay them an insane amount of $$ to move.

  8. Pro-tip: when you are arguing with the local government, then it’s time to move. Good on United. Bad on Chicago. The Democratic Party (which I have voted for unanimously) is just ridiculously anti-business and wholly ignorant of what it takes to generate a prosperous society.

  9. These companies dont move without tax incentives. You would hear Colorado/Denver offering United tax exemptions to bring in the HQ before they moved. I would think Chicago has offered United incentives to keep jobs in Chicago.

  10. I feel United’s pain. After all, Chicago is just too well located. Why keep your headquarters for your huge international airline at one of your vast international hubs, and one that’s comparatively central to the national population?

  11. Forget airline HQs and every other old guard industries’ HQs. Chicago should focus on attracting tech & other growth industries.

  12. eds,
    you either haven’t traveled through ATL or are intentionally denying facts.
    ATL has reworked the A and B concourses and is working its way into other concourses.

    But this discussion isn’t about how “pretty” one airport is vs. another.

    ATL is the most cost efficient and the largest hub on the planet.

    ORD is at the complete opposite end.

    And UAL is not talking – yet about – changing its hub status at ORD and probably won’t. Neither AAL or UAL can strategically afford to walk away from ORD.

    And UAL is talking about moving its HDQ out of Chicago because, as others have noted, the cost and quality of living relative to other options has deteriorated. Substantially.

    Where their HDQ people work has little to do with the hub but says volumes about the city where the company wants to be most associated.

    For lots of reasons, Chicago is not high on that list anymore.

  13. I am surprised that United will no longer be “Chicago’s Hometown Airline”, O’Hare is and always will be United’s main hub.

  14. The City of Chicago is deteriorating and not attractive to United anymore, with taxes going to the roof, shootings like the Wild Wild West, and the influx of illegal aliens crossing the border! What a disaster the whole situation has become!!

  15. @alex
    I believe United’s goals is for denver to be bigger than O’Hare since denver has so much more space to grow

    I’ll believe this move when I see it. Frankly, it seems like thinly veiled PR leverage with the city over the cost overruns on the massive new ORD terminal complex. This is exactly the type of filing I’d do if I were united then leak it to someone if you wanted the city of chicago to start taking United (and aa but aa wouldn’t be involved in this part) seriously about rethinking the new O’Hare terminal

  16. These stupid lies about Chicago taxes are ridiculous and unfounded. Our taxes have not changed in years. No increases. The city has limited abilities to tax things that impact a corporate headquarters bottom line…. Now, the state of Illinois has some flexibility here….

  17. United has another Headquarters in Arlington Heights, Il.Majority of the workers are working out there.

  18. People don’t understand how business unfriendly and even unsafe much of Illinois has become. It’s even worse “North of I-80” as they say in Illinois. I don’t blame companies for fleeing Illinois, heck most of the people want to leave as well. That being said I don’t think Denver is a good choice. The cost of living has gone up so much there it isn’t attractive for employees to live there. Even homes in rural communities in Colorado are very expensive. Eventually, the politics of Denver and Colorado will take them down the same road. Houston might be better overall but that is not without problems either.

  19. Chicago has had the highest level of corporate investment and relocation in the nation for the last 15 years in a row. It’s an easy google search. It amazes me that ever time a company leaves the city there is a whole slew of people, most who do not live or have ever been here, claiming this is the end for a dying city. I’ve lived downtown for 24 years and I don’t recognize the city anymore. The growth is mind boggling for anyone interested enough to actually look up the data instead of spouting whatever they’ve been told by their favorite talking head on cable tv. IMO this is a ploy to scare the city because both United and American are angry at the estimated costs to rebuild O’hare terminals.

  20. Hi Gary, very slight typo it says “runes” instead of “runs” but maybe that was on purpose 🙂

  21. HQ is staying in Chicago….. they have a brand new HDQ in Arlington Heights……. This article is misinformed I believe. Those will be Pilot and F/a training facilities but not an HQ. They also will be used for maintenance as a central base.

  22. Max gets it on this one. Well done!
    there is negotiating room but there are some things that just hurt companies that are trying to attract employees to a downtown Chicago location and they aren’t likely to change in the next few years.
    UA can negotiate better terms for itself but you can only pay so much of a premium to get people to work where they don’t want

    and if the City of Chicago loses the UA headquarters, there is a real loss even if UA maintains large airport and non-airport groups of employees elsewhere in IL.

  23. As a UA employee I would welcome this move. I might get hosed selling my house but one can hope the housing environment will be better by the time this move happens.

    Having moved to Chicago from Houston after the UA/CO merger I loved living in the city, being car free, and living in a walkable neighborhood. That all changed pre-pandemic, during Lightfoot admin, when the city seemed to begin a spiral down. Fast forward to COVID and the lawlessness that has now taken over the city, it no longer felt safe even in the safe neighborhoods so along with my partner we decided to leave. It was a great choice but our ultimate goal has been to get out of IL completely so we would welcome a move somewhere else.

  24. United should move to Houston, where the better run Continental Airlines was headquartered.

  25. @dee the majority are not working in Arlington Heights, that is only the companies ops center. The majority are forced to work in the city at Willis Tower.

  26. What about centralizing heavy mx ops in DEN? SFO is insanely expensive and land around the airport is limited by geographic barriers. My gut says allot of that land will to towards a huge state of the art heavy mx base.

  27. so the most woke airline corporate ceo can’t get along with the country’s most woke mayor & want to leave? All the stuff said about Chicago should be regarded as features for that mind set.

  28. Note that the real measure of population these days is the CSA (Combined Statistical Area) than MSA (Metropolitan Statistical Area). In that respect, the Washington Baltimore CSA has overtaken Chicago CSA to become third behind NY/NJ and LA.

  29. Nothing funnier than a bunch of suburban tough guys who are terrified of the big bad city. Turn off Fox News and head downtown, you’ll have a nice time.

  30. United is using this filing as a bargaining tactic with the new (and ridiculous “Dubai/Singaporesque” Terminal at O’Hare debacle.

    That being said: Chicago is a dumpster fire. Period.

    And the Denver land is put in the boonies very close to the airport.

    They should move to Texas and call it a day after 2032.

  31. Denver,Colorado will not make for a better tax move as it has a state income tax and the Denver airport cannot figure out how to get people moving thru it!!

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