Skift Take

There are limits to how much an airline like United knows about you and that is comforting to some travelers. But putting the data it does have to good use remains a challenge, although we see nothing controversial about wishing someone a happy birthday.

It only takes 25 minutes for virtual chaos to ensue when any kind of consumer-facing problem arises at an airline, and not a single second is wasted getting the fix, according to Linda Jojo, executive vice president of technology and chief digital officer at United Airlines, who spoke at the inaugural Skift Tech Forum Tuesday in Santa Clara, California.

“Something is probably wrong right now and I’m hopeful that no customers noticed,” said Jojo. “Recovery time is about 25 minutes before you start to impact travelers and today we know the many ways travelers let us know when something has gone wrong.”

United has had its fair share of bad press during the past year for passenger-dragging and misplaced and fatal dog incidents to name two examples. Not to mention computer glitches at several airlines that have marred travelers’ perceptions.

Cybersecurity threats are always a specter, too. “There are way more bad guys out there than I’ll be able to hire,” said Jojo.

Jojo, who’s been at United for more than three years, said that United has been investing in technology to help ensure these and other kinds of incidents don’t happen in the future.

United’s investment in technology comes second only to airline purchases, said Jojo. “I think investments in tech were always there and that we were at a pivot point when I first started at United,” she said. “Really, mobile had come of age.”

That starts with changes coming to the United mobile app, but app fans can rest assured their favorite features, such as tracking where a flight has come from, won’t go away. “The reality is that apps have changed,” said Jojo. “We try things with the app all the time and roll something back that didn’t work rather than releasing something once and trying to make it perfect.”

United wants to be the best app on your phone, said Jojo, but that would likely mean it’s something that travelers would turn to constantly even if they weren’t traveling which seems unlikely. “We’ll be making changes with usability such as letting you scroll up and down,” she said. “We’ll make our app much more contextual. We’ll help to direct you through an airport to your gate after you’ve checked in. When you’re on the plane, in-flight entertainment will come up.”

But to do some of that, United needs to know some things about you, and how to go about getting that information still has executives like Jojo scratching their heads.

“We’re actually trying to arm our employees with information about who is seated in 7C so that our flight attendants can have a better way of interacting with them,” said Jojo. “But the reality is that the line between personalized and creepy is different for different people. Do you like it when we come up and wish you a happy birthday? We’re trying to figure out where does that line fall.”

Privacy concerns that have erupted from actions of Facebook and other Silicon Valley companies are top of mind for many travelers this year. As the airline works to be more relevant to travelers, Jojo said United knows a lot about you if you’ve been a loyalty member for a long time but they don’t know everything.

“If you asked me if I could go back and find the first flight you ever took with us, my answer would be no we couldn’t,” said Jojo. “But If there’s a route that you fly a lot and you have to connect through somewhere or always fly in the morning, then we would put those kinds of flights right to the top of our suggestions to you. We’re also starting to think about whether you’re on a business trip versus with your family and making different offers based on that.”

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Tags: skift tech forum, stf2018

Photo credit: Skift Airlines Business Reporter Brian Sumers, left, and United executive vice president of technology and chief digital officer spoke at Skift Tech Forum in Santa Clara, California on June 12, 2018.

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