How United Airlines is Personalizing Travel for MileagePlus Members

by 
David Kaplan
Monday, July 1, 2019
 • 
5
 min read

The carrier’s chief aim in promoting personalization is to reduce the number of times a customer has to tap to get their information says United Airlines’ Praveen Sharma.

Consumer have come to expect that practically everything should come with an option for some form of automatic, personalized interaction. This has changed the nature of how brands approach loyalty programs, particularly in the travel space.

That was the thesis of an on-stage discussion among Praveen Sharma, VP, Digital Products & Analytics, United Airlines, and Christian Selchau-Hansen CEO and co-founder of customer engagement platform Formation.ai, at Skift’s Tech Forum last week in San Francisco.

United has partnered with Formation.ai on several personalization initiatives over the past year. The conversation has primarily focused on this development: When devising programs designed for regular customers, it must begin with satisfying the expectation to access functions that recognize their interests and goals, rather than just singularly deep discounts.  

“Personalization is not only providing relevant offers, but help,” Praveen Sharma Vice President, Digital Products & Analytics, United Airlines told Skift Research Editor Jeremy Kressmann at Skift’s Tech Forum last week in San Francisco. “What United is doing in improving customer experience is understanding the pain points and solving them for customers.”

“Customers’ expectation for relevance is going thru the roof,” added Selchau-Hansen. “Being able to help me as a consumer creates less friction with the brand. In the end, loyalty is about recognizing that uniqueness in your customer and establishing and deepening that relationship.”

Kambr Media caught up with Sharma after his conference session to talk about United’s approach to personalization and how its MilePlay promotion, which offers travel incentives to members of the airline’s MileagePlus loyalty program, reflects the company’s overall digital transformation.

United Airlines’ Praveen Sharma, Formation.ai's Christian Selchau-Hansen, and Skift's Jeremy Kressmann at Skift's Tech Forum.

Kambr Media: How has MilePlay been evolving?

Praveen Sharma: We launched a new product called Travel Inspiration. If you really look at most airline sites from a customer perspective, you have to know the airport code and specific places. The challenge, which even I have with my family sometimes, is when I’ll say, “Hey, let's go to the beach.”

Then, for us, the question becomes, “Which airports should we fly to?”

Previously, we did not have the aspect of discovery as part of our family’s travel plans. So, recognizing the need for others, we launched a product on UnitedAirlines.com called Travel Inspiration to deliver that sense of discovery and make it easier for people to find places to go.

How does the discovery process work in Travel Inspiration?

You can go to that part of the website and type in a destination to, for example, Crete. Or, you can say, “I'm looking for 70 degree weather.” You can also explore trips to music festivals. You can do all kinds of searches based on a general interest.

After that, based on those searches, when you come back to United’s site, Travel Inspirations can show you destinations based on your previous travels. In essence, the site can “know” you like beaches and show you the three different beaches you haven't gone to yet.

For example, it can recognize that you always go to Miami. But here are beaches

outside of Miami, or here are other places that are different from Miami that you might like to visit.

Ultimately, Travel Inspiration helps customers explore more of our network, and also makes it less transactional and more personalized.

How does United approach personalization?

The point of Travel Inspiration in particular, and our view of personalization in general, involves looking at how we can reduce customer effort when it comes to completing what they want to do when they visit our site.

Let’s say I know you go to Chicago every Thursday or once a month. And I know you always like an aisle seat. When you are doing your search, why don't I show you just the aisle seats which are available on your trips to Chicago rather than letting you sort of scroll up and down?

Let’s say you are a morning person, and you don't like to take the red eye. By knowing those travel patterns, I can reduce your search effort when you choose your flight. That is what would be useful for our customers, rather than having to constantly enter and search for the same kind of service over and over again.

That's how we are approaching it. And it’s not just about the search process. The way we approach personalization also applies when you are at the airport. With our new app, when you land and you have a connecting flight at another gate, the screen will show you the map to the different gate.

Now, the person who goes through Newark airport every Thursday and flew to Tokyo, doesn’t need the map because they know exactly where the gates are. But if it is my grandmother coming to visit through an airport for first time, then having that map appear is very useful. That kind of feature offers a level of “smartness” which customers will appreciate. That's what we're going for.

What about extending personalization during a flight, such as knowing that a person likes to only have salads or a sandwich at a certain point of the flight. Can United provide that kind of personalization?

We are getting there. That’s a part of personalization that we are getting close to. We’ll be working on processes where we can examine how we can do better meal ordering, and get that information. Look out for it, there are always improvements coming.

In general, how do you define personalization and United’s role in providing it?

It's helping customers in their journey and reducing their effort for that journey process. That's what I would call personalization. It’s like when Uber knows you are at San Francisco airport and therefore already has your starting point set without you having to do anything except open the app.

That's one step we can remove for customers. That's the focus we took with the new United app: our aim was to reduce the number of times a customer has to tap to get their information. So far, we’ve reduced the number of taps by approximately 25 percent. I'm saving you time, and you're having a better, more efficient experience. That's what I call personalization.

In a larger sense, how do all these things fit into United’s two-year digital transformation?

It’s all about steps in a multi-year platform workaround. The way I look at it is, these concepts and ideas cannot be done coldly. And we do not want to run them overnight. Because if we knew exactly what to do, we should have been doing it. Right? There's a whole test and learn mentality we have.

Customers' behavior, customers' tastes, and customers’ processes change. So that's why we are taking this multi-year journey.

In order to do what we want to do, and are doing, we have to change some underlying platforms. We're working with masses of data, working with all kinds of platforms and channels from smartphones to voice activated assistants. We have made significant progress, and will continue to advance and improve these technological tools for personalization.

There are certain elements of data that our customers are naturally giving us with what they do and opt-in to. And then there are others who are going to pro-actively tell us. This includes telling us what food you like, what drinks, etc. We're working on the infrastructure to collect that and then act on that information. That’s the next phase of personalization at United.

What’s driving that push towards personalization in air travel?

Our customers are demanding personalization because they expect that now from every service they use. What we have found with Mile Play, and on most of the contextual work we are doing, engagement of Millennials, and our transaction rate, has significantly increased.

It’s something we have to provide. We are doing this in order to engage the new generation and the expectations people have.

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