United Airlines’ Digital Technology group is gearing up for a busy summer travel season by connecting teams with real-time data and digital capabilities to improve communications and deliver personalized customer experiences on the fly.
For example, flight attendants can use the MyFlight app on their iPhones to view the experience each customer had on their last five flights. They are also able to see if a passenger recently celebrated a birthday or joined a new loyalty tier.
Another app, Easy Chat, connects crew members responsible for the activities that take place between the time a plane lands and the time it takes off again. Two hours prior to a flight, the app populates a chat room with everyone assigned to the flight, including customer service representatives, in-flight supervisors and members of the operations team. They can communicate in real-time about seat changes, catering updates, full overhead bins and other factors that might impact the plane’s ability to leave on time.
MyFlight and Easy Chat are just two examples of solutions Chief Information Officer Jason Birnbaum and the Digital Technology team have developed to drive more efficient operations and deliver more personalized customer service. The apps underscore the growing importance of data and connectivity as sources of strategic advantage as airports get busier and customers expect seamless travel experiences.
“It’s all about connectivity,” said Birnbaum, who joined United in 2015 and was named CIO last year. That means not only making team members’ jobs easier, but also “setting people up to serve customers better, solve problems in real time, and communicate with everyone involved.”
United plans to fly to 114 international cities this summer and has expanded flying by 25% more than last year to meet the sharp increase in demand for travel outside the United States. It also plans to add more than 700 new planes to the fleet by 2033, including 90 this year and 140 in 2024.
It’s welcome traffic for the airline, which, like many of its peers, saw major traffic declines at the height of the pandemic. The subsequent rebound in traffic, along with changes to how and when people choose to fly, has reinforced the key role technology plays in United’s ability to pivot quickly.
“It taught us what kind of airline we need to be as a business,” Birnbaum said. “We have to figure out how to flex and scale.”
To do that, United has sharpened its focus on data, adopted more flexible infrastructure, and transitioned to new ways of working that put customers front and center.
United has “tripled down” on analytics use cases, not only using it to make better decisions about where to fly, but also to diagnose reasons for delays, help passengers make their connections, and suggest ways to use fuel more efficiently, among others. United uses a hub-and-spoke model for its analytics efforts, with a core analytics team within Digital Technology and data scientists embedded across application teams.
Underpinning the analytics push has been a continued move to cloud infrastructure and “cloud-native” thinking. Cloud infrastructure enables greater scalability, which comes in handy when a storm sends travelers scrambling to the app to check for flight updates. It provides the ability to recover faster when there are issues, increasingly important during peak travel times. “The sense of urgency required is more intense than ever,” Birnbaum said.
There have been efforts to improve the user experience for both customers and team members. Employees with backgrounds in design thinking are making sure applications are as user-friendly as possible, particularly for new employees who may not have prior industry knowledge.
The Digital Technology group is actively exploring uses for large language models and generative AI, Birnbaum said. The technology could help travelers plan complicated itineraries, supercharge the effectiveness of customer service centers, and deliver key operational updates to teams in easy-to-understand formats.
United last year launched its Airshop innovation lab, where teams are experimenting with virtual reality, the metaverse, smart bag tags and other emerging technologies. A physical space in the Chicago area serves as a hub for collaboration with universities, creative partners and others.
Other initiatives aim to make flights more family friendly. Following a new family seating policy earlier this year that makes it easier for kids under 12 to sit next to an adult in their party for free, United launched a seat mapping feature that dynamically finds available seats next to each other when booking. Birnbaum and team are also working on better signage and more intuitive wayfinding in airports, and details such as which airport restaurants have family-friendly meals.
“The combination of great technology and information with great people is what creates that personalized customer experience.”