You probably can't blame airlines for delivering a poor in-flight Wi-Fi experience. As United's chief digital officer Linda Jojo says, it's likely impossible for any provider to give passengers a consistent ground-like experience. People forget sometimes they're traveling more than 500 miles at hour, at more than 30,000 feet.
Hundreds of the travel industry’s most technology savvy executives will gather for our first Skift Tech Forum in Silicon Valley on June 12.
Skift Tech Forum, which will take place at the United Club at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, will focus on tech disruptions in retailing, distribution and merchandising of travel as well as on timely debates such privacy versus personalization. Expect insightful conversations from a broad range of speakers, including CEOs and top executives from United Airlines, Southwest, Uber, Accor, Sabre Corp., Hilton Hotels, Alibaba, and Kayak.
The following is part of a series of posts highlighting some of the speakers and touching on issues of concern in the technology space.
It’s no secret most airlines are slightly behind other industries with their digital strategies. At their core, they’re still transportation companies, and they haven’t always had the bandwidth – particularly when they were losing money — to invest in the future.
That’s changing. Many airlines now consistently make money, and most CEOs know they must invest in digital approaches. Carriers are improving websites and apps, and overhauling their e-commerce strategies so they act more like Amazon and less like decades-old legacy companies.
At the same time, they seek to overhaul antiquated back-end systems, so they’re more reliable, because nothing frustrates passengers so much as a system failure that requires an airline to ground all flights. And they’re doing what they can to improve in-flight Wi-Fi, which is harder than it sounds, in part because vendors, not airlines, control the systems.
At United Airlines, Linda Jojo is leading this effort. She’s United’s executive vice president for technology and chief digital officer, and she joined the company in late 2014 from Rogers Communications. Jojo will speak about her priorities on June 12 at the first Skift Tech Forum in San Jose, California.
We spoke with her recently by telephone to preview the discussion. This interview was edited for length and clarity.
Skift: Like many of your competitors, United had some trouble offering reliable inflight Wi-Fi. What’s the problem? Will it ever be fixed?
Linda Jojo: Well, there is this thing called physics, and it probably always will be in the way. Now, I would say that the kinds of things that happen in the technical world are just amazing and there are things we’re doing today we never thought were possible, even three or five years ago. I’m sure it’s going to get there but never forget that you’re going hundreds of miles an hour at 35,000 feet, [with the connection] beaming from a satellite orbiting the earth. The reality is, it will probably never be as good as your living room, because let’s face it, your living room is going to get faster too.
Skift: Another big issue for airlines is the reliability of reservations systems. Many airlines have at least one major outage every couple of years. What’s the problem?
Jojo: I don’t want to jinx us, but our reservation system hasn’t been down in the three and a half years that I’ve been here. I’ll start with that. But I think the reality is that we’re a 24 hour a day, seven day a week, 365 days a year operation. Our systems have to be up and operating all the time. It is complex, and what we have to do is make sure we can stay up. We’re laser focused on this. It is literally the No. 1 thing that we do. [We can’t] do the other things we get to do if we can’t keep our systems available for customers and our employees. What we face is the reality that things are going to happen, and we have to be great at recovery. That’s where we’re focused. Many of the little hiccups or things that happen, for a huge, huge, huge majority of customers, they have no idea.
Skift: Let’s talk fun stuff. What are your digital priorities for the rest of this year?
Jojo: We’ve got some big plans. We will be revamping our mobile app and our website this summer. We’ve already done some work with mobile.united.com and that’ll give you a pretty good indication of what the other platforms are going to do. The idea is to get a much more contextual and personalized experience for our customers.
Then a lot of the things we’re doing from the operational side are for our employees — getting them a lot of information either about the situation or the operational conditions of what’s going on at the airports or with the weather, so they can get great information to our customers who, for whatever reason, might not be using the app.
Skift: Why is personalization so important?
Jojo: It’s what all of the consumer apps and the consumer experiences [are delivering]. [Consumers] really don’t care whether that experience is with a company that’s three and a half, or five, or ten years old, or one that’s nearly 100 years old like an airline. They expect that kind of experience and we want to make sure we give it to them.
Skift: What, if anything, keeps you up at night?
Jojo: Well, let’s start with, I do sleep pretty well. Just not sleep enough sometimes, according to my doctor. But I think probably the thing I would have to answer, just like pretty much anybody in my shoes and in the industry, is the threat of cyber [attacks] and what that could do to either disrupt our operation or [allow someone to] get access to our customer information. We can be really comfortable with how great we are and how secure we are right now, but there are a lot more bad guys out there trying to get in than we have good guys and girls that are working here. We have to always stay on top of it. We have to always be aware of what’s happening, and we have to always be getting better. Even after all that, there’s no guarantees.
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Photo credit: United Airlines is working on new digital initiatives, including an updated mobile app. Linda Jojo, executive vice president for technology and chief digital officer, is leading the effort. United Airlines