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When United Airlines decided to make it possible for passengers to check in for flights by voice command, the development was the result of some quick thinking.
“This was an idea from somebody that was in our group; he said, ‘I want to try to see if we can introduce an Alexa skill,'” said United Chief Digital Officer Linda Jojo at the inaugural Skift Tech Forum in Silicon Valley this spring. “It took him two weeks.”
That approach — try something quickly rather than spend ages toiling away on a project — is indicative of the way United is trying to roll out new tech upgrades.
“When you work in a large corporate technology department and you want to talk about innovation, you’ve got to start thinking about how are some ways we can get everybody engaged in trying new things,” said Jojo, who is also the airline’s executive vice president for technology.
That applies to the way the carrier is considering the use of biometric technology for boarding and other purposes, which some airlines have tested. Jojo said that as governments become more interested in using technology such as facial recognition, the airline will also get on board.
“We’re sitting back a little bit right now, lettings some of those early kinks come out,” she said. “Because of the size of the airline, we have to have such scale before it changes a customer’s experience. We’d rather focus on things we can do much more quickly and we’ll fast follow on that.”
In response to an audience question about the process of developing and releasing new features — essentially, “How agile is your company?” — Jojo said the airline is a work in progress
“We’re still not agile enough, but we don’t do multi-year projects. Frankly, we don’t even do multi-month projects,” she said. “We’re trying to break things down into the smallest pieces possible.”
She added: “In terms of our customer-facing tools … we’re putting releases out sometimes every day, every couple of weeks, depending on what it is. And we’re doing A/B testing all the time.”
During the discussion, Jojo also discussed the airline’s new app, the social media information that is collected, and the recent kerfuffle over tomato juice.
After an outcry greeted the decision to remove the beverage from flights, United has returned tomato juice to the skies — where it’s still not being ordered much.
“It’s a ridiculously small number of people that actually drink tomato juice on our flights,” Jojo said. “However, apparently those tomato juice drinkers are extremely vocal and very good at social media.”
In a broader sense, she said United is “manically focused” on improving customer satisfaction. That became especially important after multiple incidents where the airline’s behavior provoked public outrage, including the removal of a passenger who was dragged violently by police and the death of a dog in an overhead bin.
“It’s very important to arrive on time, but it’s very important to have a good customer experience,” Jojo said. To that end, the airline has been focusing on what it calls the “Core Four” priorities: safety, caring, dependability, and efficiency — with “caring” notably high on the list.
Jojo said the company also gained some better understanding of the power of social media.
“We are much more sophisticated in our ability to understand what’s happening on social media, what’s trending, how we can actually manage through that,” she said. “It is a technology issue in that respect; we’ve invested a lot in that.”
You can watch the entire interview above, or consider reading more coverage of Skift Tech Forum.
At Skift Tech Forum in Silicon Valley, travel tech executives gathered for a day of inspiration, information, and conversation.