“My vision for United’s app is for it to become a digital concierge,” says CTO Ravi Simhambhatla.
Among the things that led to United Airlines’ solid Q3 earnings performance, EVP for Technology and Chief Digital Officer Linda Jojo singled out the company’s mobile app as a shining star in the carrier’s ongoing “digital transformation.” (See Seeking Alpha for the call transcript.)
United’s mobile app, like many other major carriers’ renewed smartphone focus, has come a long way from just serving as a virtual boarding pass and not much else. But when United relaunched its mobile app in January, it sought to go a little further than just offering flight status and baggage tracking updates.
As Jojo noted during the company’s Q3 analysts call last week, customers can purchase and change both tickets and in-flight products through any of United’s channels at any time before their trip. Since consumers are spending more of their interactive lives on mobile, having the ability to manage transactions within an app is increasingly regarded as essential.
“For example, a customer can prepay for her bag at the time of ticket purchase. But if she doesn't actually end up checking a bag, the bag fee is automatically refunded. We're the only airline to do this,” Jojo told analysts. “Or if a customer checks the app when she arrives at the airport, and sees that she might be too far down the upgrade list, she can purchase an upgrade right in the app.”
“Personalization” is at the center airlines’ mobile app strategies, especially as they recognize mobile e-commerce as the clearest path for driving the purchase of bookings and ancillaries.
Programs like United’s MilePlay, which recommends in-app product offers powered by artificial intelligence, are now acknowledged as valued tools for airline retailing.
"We also continue to build upon personalization of our mobile app," Jojo said. "Developments like Mile Play, which is unique to United, our – our in-app product offers include artificial intelligence, gamification features that increases customer engagements and drive take rates even higher, especially with our Millennial customers.
"These examples may seem small, but they have helped us grow ancillary revenues by over 18% year-to-date," Jojo continued. "I want to speak briefly about how we work. Our digital team does not sit in some far off building or city. We are embedded in the airline and rather than take years, new tools and features are rolled out in weeks often at just one airport or one region, where we get real-time feedback, make changes and then repeat it until we get it right."
At the heart of the approach United took to the app, which was revamped in January, was that it would seek to assist users beyond the flight, but at the moments leading up to it and following a passenger’s arrival, Ravi Simhambhatla, United’s chief technology officer, told us when we caught up with him at September’s World Aviation Festival in London.
For example, users can order an Uber (or order another ride-hailing option), book a hotel, or just play Sudoku at various levels of skill.
And as with United’s ConnectionSaver, an in-app tool that debuted in June and automatically notifies users of departing flights that can be held for connecting customers, Simhambhatla emphasized that all the in-app features are developed in-house by the carrier’s digital team.
Kambr Media: United unveiled its “reimagined app” earlier this year. What were the big changes?
Ravi Simhambhatla: The current features that we've got for our app were deployed on January 24th of this year. We call it the “Contextual App.” In essence, rather than it being a static version of an app where the user has to initiate interactions, the app now automatically interacts with you. The app knows where you are in your customer journey at any given point of time.
The app has been designed to truly help our customers not think about the app and the specific technology interaction. It’s a more natural, seamless experience that allows the user to just focus on their own journey instead of having to search around the app.
What was the process for the app update? And how might a United passenger experience these new contextual features?
We did a lot of testing and learning. We took upwards of six months to figure out what kind of information we put on what we call “Contextual Cards.” What are the labels that a United app user would want to see and would clearly understand?
At every stage in the process, we asked, “Do these labels make sense to our customers?”
For example, you have a boarding pass on the app. And you've checked in a bag. When you've just boarded a plane, you want see if your check-in bag has been loaded. As soon as you flip your app up, and you see your boarding pass. You can click a link in the pass screen that tells the app to track your bag.
We are trying to anticipate what our consumers would do and what they want to see in that moment. What are their actions at every point in the journey, and how can we preempt those actions, get ahead of them, and serve them before the customer has to do anything about it. The message we’re trying to convey is that that we respect your time and your loyalty.
It’s obvious and universal that there will be the most interaction with the app on day of travel, right? But then there's also an entire ecosystem that happens when you start to envision your travel plans, when you're thinking about travel. It’s the same when you reach your destination, and you come back. It all involves the inspiration of travel. Whether you're a business traveler or a leisure traveler, you're still thinking about how you’re getting to the airport; you’re trying to predict how long it will take you to get through the airport and through the TSA lines.
What are the challenges involved in crafting this kind of personalized set of in-app functions?
Presenting all these features in a way that is anticipatory without being intrusive or annoying is easier said than done.
At different airports, we need to have different types of infrastructure that allows us to count the footfalls and number of people behind the TSA counter and egressing out of the TSA counter. But those are the things that matter to our customers most, so we have to do it.
How do expect the app to continue to evolve?
My vision for the app is for it to become a digital concierge. The next step is ecosystem integration. When our customers travel away from home, we know it.
Even if we don't have any other information, we know if you're going somewhere else, you might want to stay in a hotel, or you might want to stay in an Airbnb. Why can’t an integration built in? When you’re visiting another city, you might want to take an Uber, that integration within our app makes sense. People don’t want to constantly toggle between their apps. If we can make the entire travel experience easier with our app, we should do it. All of that will be coming together.
What are some of the ways United’s app can make a flier’s travel experience more seamless?
We fly out some of the toughest hubs in the country. Let’s say there are a thousand people that you need to get into a particular hotel. How can we help our customers make that reservation? And is a hotel the best option? Could it be Airbnb? We could help our customer have a less stressful time finding a place to stay.
We are amazing at flying people safely. That is our core strength. There are others who are amazing at being the best host in the hotel industry, or hosts at an Airbnb.
I'm sure hotels and all the property sharing folks often wonder, “Hey, there's an event in Madrid, how can we get guests to stay at our place?” Or, “There’s football game and we want to entice people to fly to our hotel from New York City, but I don't know who they want to fly with.”
The hotel marketing manager, and the home-sharing provider might say, “I need to partner with an airline to target a bundled offer to a certain group of people.” That bundled offer includes everything – from ground transportation, air transportation, accommodations, all the way back to your home base. That's the kind of integration our customers expect.
In shaping the redesigned app, what’s influenced the priorities and the choices you’ve made?
I've got two kids, 18- and 15-years-old. They expect that integration to come out of the box now. So that’s had an impact on my thinking. Our job, my job, and that of my colleague Praveen [Sharma, VP, Digital Products & Analytics at United] is to try and read the tea leaves 5-, 6-, 7 years in the future, when Millennials and Gen Z-ers become our high-yield customers. How do you make sure you’re servicing them, and the world that they live in, is the question that impacts my thinking.
We spoke with Praveen back in July about United’s Travel Inspiration online feature, which recommends trips to Mileage Plus members through the carrier’s website. Is that same tool available through the app as well?
We are absolutely working on that for the app. The content is curated by providers.
Another addition also want to crowdsource the content from our own Mileage Plus members. Wouldn't it be awesome if our Mileage Plus members went to a place, and posted Instagram pictures of the experiences they’ve had?
There are so many things we can do. Let’s say you started a movie halfway through the flight and you didn’t finish it before landing. You could have the option of watching the rest of the film when you get to your hotel or on the flight back. Our vision is to have a feed from the lounge to the gate, on to the aircraft, then out of the gate, to your hotel room, back to you so can finish what you started viewing. It’s all about giving our customers a complete experience.