BBT talked to Linda Jojo, executive vice president of technology and chief digital officer at United Airlines, to find out more about the airline’s investment in technology and the continued development of its app
How do you make decisions on the kind of tech you invest in?
We invest in two buckets: technology that will help us in the short-term (ie measurable business impact, either financial or customer service) and things we think will be innovative and have a long-term impact.
For the short-term, it’s really important for us to deliver on what we promise. Sometimes it has an effect on my colleagues’ ability to do their jobs, so we really try to stick to our promises to help them out. We manage those very tightly and hold the team accountable for delivering those projects on time.
With the long-term investments, it’s really about trying things out. If we see something we like, we’ll give it a try. If it works, we’ll keep going, but if not we stop and move on to something else. We call it ‘failing fast’ – if we can see that something won’t deliver a positive impact, we’ll drop it.
We recently developed a ‘skill’ for the Amazon Echo, whereby you can ask your device to check you in for your flight; Alexa can see you have a booking and she can check you in without you having to touch a keyboard. That was a way for us to learn about natural language and the way people talk. It was a very quick development process, so now we’re implementing it and we’ll see how it goes.
We’re also building a tool for our sales team to help them better understand complex corporate contracts, and we’ll work on that much more rigorously in terms of how it works.
Have you found that there is a market for voice technology in travel?
It’s in its very early days, and we had a small team that worked on our Alexa skill for two weeks – so it didn’t take a lot of resources, which means we don’t need a hard return on investment. It’s a learning opportunity.
Over time, voice will become more important – it’s already happening. You can send texts with voice, you can ask your phone’s assistant to search for things that you used to have to type by hand. We’re in the early stages of figuring out what this means, so that’s why we were keen to get something out early.
What are you working on for the next stage of the United app?
There’s a lot of space that’s not being used at the moment, so what we want is for the app to know more about what you need contextually, so rather than navigating to your boarding pass, we want the app to bring it up automatically as you approach points in your journey when you need it. When you’re on the plane, we want it to show you inflight entertainment options, then when you land it might show you where to pick up your bags.
We want to use technology to make the travel experience more personal and eliminate as much stress as possible.
Do you look at what other airlines and suppliers are doing to come up with new ideas?
Yes, and not just other airlines. We look at who is the best at the things we want to do, such as who has the best web experience for customers. We look at our favourite products and determine how we can make it work for us.
How do you manage data security in relation to your app?
It’s something we take very seriously. For a long time, the top priority for airlines has been operating safely, and now up there with that is security. We think about the two in similar ways; we collaborate with partners and work with other suppliers to come up with contingencies for various situations.
We also hire teams to break into our system so we can find out where the weaknesses are in order to develop better security. Every year, we commit more and more to cyber security, and every year we learn about new threats that we need to watch out for.
How do you engage with customers who don’t use the app?
It’s harder, but we are starting to add more and more features to the app to make it more appealing.
Originally, the app was designed for the day of travel – check-in, changing seats, information about gate changes. But we realised that a large number of people are now using mobile apps instead of websites, so we added functionality for purchasing and changing tickets, and we’ve just added the ability to download boarding passes for our partner airlines – things you normally do long before you get to the airport. So the app is becoming more useful for the end-to-end process. It’s easier than the traditional method of checking in at the airport and having to keep track of paper boarding passes.
How do you ensure your staff are using the app to the best of its ability?
Because we can never have employees everywhere our customers are simply due to the sheer number of people travelling, we have tried to make the app so simple to use that they don’t need help from a staff member. We even look at the reasons people call the help line so we can make the app address those needs.
The new generation of passengers who have grown up with mobile devices don’t want to speak to a person to solve their problems. They would much rather be able to figure out on their own using an app or open a chat window if they need help. We want our passengers to be able to do that.
Do you think there’s an issue with limiting human interaction?
We want human interaction to be about things that are really meaningful and not just transactional. Sometimes all people want when they get to their hotel is to go straight to their room and relax. But if they’re in a new city or don’t know the area very well, it’s wonderful to have somebody at the front desk who can make recommendations on restaurants and points of interest. If you don’t want or need that interaction, having the technology available to allow you to do everything yourself means that person at the check-in desk has more time to spend with the people who want their attention.
What does the future look like for United and the industry?
The fact that the adoption of technology is happening so fast is great. Our employees are doing things with apps we didn’t think possible even three years ago. They’re coming up with really innovative ways to enhance the customer experience, whether it’s voice technology or connected devices.
I think things will be very different three years from now, and things will get better for our passengers. My team faces the challenge of picking things to work on that they think will make things better and continuing to innovate. We don’t want to be afraid to try things if there’s a chance it’ll have a positive impact.