American Airlines is taking a very flexible and sensible approach to Apple's Passbook feature in iOS 6. If it takes off, then American may use the feature to push marketing and service messages to passengers.
American Airlines believes that its upcoming delivery of mobile boarding passes in the iOS 6 Passbook feature may be just the beginning, as there may be ways to use it for other-boarding-related services.
Richard Elieson, the airline’s managing director of digital marketing, says American’s implementation of Passbook may one day evolve into communicating to Executive Platinum members of AAdvantage that a first-class upgrade is available, or providing standby and gate-change information to passengers.
“This is new,” Elieson says, referring to Passbook, a day after Apple’s iPhone 5 and iOS 6 announcement. “Our thinking about it is pretty new, as well. “What is relevant to that event or experience? Wouldn’t that be a great place to say, ‘Here’s your upgrade.’”
Although American intends to implement Apple’s Passbook, which retrieves passengers’ mobile boarding passes for scanning on iOS 6-powered iPhones and iPods, in an upcoming app update, there are no concrete plans yet to expand its features to communicate upgrades and gate changes.
Meanwhile, Elieson says there is no financial relationship between the airline and Apple when it comes to Passbook, and he notes the development work on American’s part was “really quick.”
Talking up mobile boarding passes
Elieson doesn’t believe Passbook will be a huge benefit to the airline in the short term, but offers that it is a “great time to talk about mobile boarding passes again.”
American currently offers mobile boarding passes in about 83 cities, although the percentage of the airline’s passengers using them is “in the single digits,” he says.
Two years ago, there was lots of fear about mobile boarding passes, Elieson says, including whether cellphone connections would conk out, batteries would go dead, or scanners at gates would be inconsistent.
“Those problems have been eliminated,” says Elieson, who adds that American’s apps retrieve passengers’ boarding passes automatically 24 hours before the flight.
That’s one of the attractive things about Passbook: It is geared to surface passengers’ mobile boarding passes when the features detects the passenger is at the airport.
Customer experience improvements, but opening door for iTravel?
Elieson argues that American is implementing Passbook not for some big marketing push, but “to create a better experience for customers.”
But is there any concern that Apple is wrangling its way into being a travel provider in a much-ballyhooed iTravel scenario, and is the software and hardware company putting up a barrier between the airline and its customers?
“I don’t think that is what Passbook is,” Elieson says. “Does this mobile app intercede between me and the customer? I don’t think so. The relationship remains between American Airlines and the customer.”
American will be monitoring passengers’ reactions to Passbook and will provide more services if they are sought, “and if they tell us they don’t want them, then we’ll quit,” Elieson says.
Asked in jest, given all the merger talk, whether US Airways was OK with American’s Apple Passbook initiative, Elieson says: “We are way ahead of them [from a tech standpoint].”
Doug Parker should be very pleased with that little dig.