Skift Take

Even more important than introducing innovative products is learning whether and how people will use them. United Airlines seems to be paying attention to that, and the company is willing to nix something if it doesn't work.

Linda Jojo, chief customer officer for United Airlines, described a slew of ways the major airline is changing the customer experience during the Skift Aviation Forum in Dallas. 

A major piece of that is digitizing service throughout the whole customer experience, including current experiments with biometrics. The airline is taking innovation ideas generated from within the board room as well as outside of it, and monitoring how well those ideas go over with customers. 

“It’s really about giving customers choice, and increasingly people want to use digital to get through airports,” Jojo said during the on-stage interview. “We’re doing a lot of innovation at our gates right now with technology, and we’re watching how people are using it.” 

Another big topic during the discussion was airline food: why it’s not been great, how it’s getting better, and how customers now have more options. 

Watch her full on-stage interview with Skift editor-at-large Brian Sumers, or read the transcript below. 

Full Transcript

Brian Sumers: Hi, Linda.

Linda Jojo of United Airlines: Hey, Brian.

Sumers: Thanks for doing this.

Jojo: Great to be here.

Sumers: I always give Linda a hard time because she is the chief customer officer at United, and I am the chief customer.

Jojo: All of our customers are chief customers.

Sumers: Well, you remind me every time I sign in to the app that I have been a Mileage Plus member since 1985.

Jojo: That’s impressive. How old were you?

Sumers: I was three years old.

Jojo: Yeah.

Sumers: It is neat, a lot of the things that you’ve been doing along those lines. If you get on the airplane, flight attendant might thank you for being a Mileage Plus member, might wish you happy birthday. Tell me about this touchpoint. I’m not the only customer that’s getting this. Why is this so important to you guys at United?

Jojo: That’s a great example of how we’re thinking about the customer experience. It starts with great people, which is our flight attendants. It goes to a great product; that’s the products that our customers see, it’s also the products our employees use; and it’s the technology. In this case, this is an app called My Flight. We’ve had it out for about six years at this point, and what My Flight does is provides all the data about all the customers that are on the plane that our flight attendants are actually working, and a lot of nuggets about that. Yes, if it’s your birthday, the day before or the day after, we know that. Not the year, year’s not on there, just the day. If you’re an accelerating customer, but also how your last five flights went with United, just a little stoplight — red, yellow, green — of how they went. Then we let our flight attendants do what they do best, is use that information and provide really personal, great service to you.

Sumers: You mentioned that you have great people, your flight attendants. They are great people. But I’ve been flying United since 1985. Some fledglings are very good, some are kind of good, some are less good. They’re all in a labor union, and you are asking them to do something else, to do a customer service function that, let me tell you, they were not doing 20 years ago. Has it been hard to change the culture at United to get the people to be nicer to customers?

Jojo: There was a day in April of 2020 that we had more pilots on our payroll than we had paying customers flying our flights that day, which meant not only our planes, but our airports, were really empty. I think all of the change and the culture that we were talking about and starting to do before the pandemic really hit home to everyone when you actually see that. So, we don’t have to explain it. Everyone that was here on that day and the days a few days before and a few days after, saw really we are a customer service business. That is what we do, and we need our customers. So, our flight attendants have embraced that.

Sumers: One interesting thing about United, and we talked about this in the prep call, is that United is one of the only airlines now that’s still greeting you in the front of the airplane, the flight attendant is, and giving you an alcohol wipe. We discussed that maybe this is not necessary anymore, and you said it is, but for reasons people might not expect. So, what is that reason?

Jojo: For those that don’t fly United: in the pandemic, when we were really focused on ensuring that we had a clean experience, we not only deep cleaned the aircraft, we had our flight attendants hand every customer a wipe as they got on the plane. You’re right, it’s probably not as necessary. But what it is, is it’s a touch point. Our flight attendants greet every single customer now. Sometimes it’s the hand of a wipe, sometimes it’s just to say hello. We may not have a wipe forever; there may be something a little more fun coming at some point, but I don’t think we’ll ever take away that touch point at the end of the Jet Bridge.

Sumers: You’re new to this job. You’ve had a lot of jobs at United that have affected the customer — chief technology officer, chief digital officer — but now you are chief customer officer. Beyond just wanting to grow your career, what made you decide you were ready to take the plunge from tech and digital into this customer role?

Jojo: Well, for one thing, it’s hard to say no to Scott Kirby. But what I really saw, as we were coming through the digital journey, was that we had a real opportunity to take the digital products and the digital experiences that our customers have and connect them more tightly to the actual navigating through the airport and flying our aircraft. So, what we’re doing is we are connecting the digital and the physical experience. There’s a huge opportunity there to make for a better experience.

Sumers: We’re in [Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport], so we probably have fewer United flyers than usual, but anytime I speak to a United flyer, they ask me this question, as customer officer I bet they ask you: Why is the food so bad?

Jojo: I mean, that’s a judgment call, I think, first of all. I think United has been through the ups and downs of, is food important? Is food not important? You can see where we were in the process, but right before the pandemic, we decided food was important. We actually have completely re-imagined how we do catering. We have a partnership now with Gate. In fact, I didn’t mention this on our prep call, but we actually have set up a kitchen in the West Loop in Chicago that has all the kinds of equipment that are on the aircraft, and we have all of our chefs come in, and we’re making sure that the things that can be imagined can actually be prepared and actually can make it through the whole process that has to happen. We have 130 kitchens and there’s a lot of variability in that. So, we have lots of suppliers.

What I would say is that we definitely got slowed down first by the pandemic itself and now by the supply chain challenges that have been there. But I know you probably love the za’atar chicken and the Impossible meatballs. Sorry to say, they’re probably not going to be around much longer. There’s going to be a lot more choice, eastbound, westbound. Those choices will start to happen, I think maybe even today is one of the first days that’ll happen. Our pre-order is now up and running. Why that’s important is right now there’s up to five choices on pre-order, versus just two if you get on the aircraft. That allows us to handle a lot more different kinds of special meals and the kinds of things that you would want from that perspective. That app that knows it’s your birthday also knows what you pre-ordered, and if you didn’t pre-order, will ask for what your choices are. We will be feeding that data through our analytics engines, and we now know what customers want and we’ll have a better chance of putting that on the plane, which means less food waste. Because if you get your second choice, you may actually eat it or maybe eat half of it. But we want to know what your first choice was so that we can start preparing that.

Sumers: Is it something that you can predict, that on the 6:30 flight from Dallas to Chicago, this many people are going to want the chicken, this many people are going to want the meatballs? Is it that granular?

Jojo: It probably won’t be quite that granular. It will be day of week, time of day granular, and type of market, leisure market. They do eat different things coming home from Las Vegas than they do going to Las Vegas. So, things like that we’ll have, but it might not be exactly like a Chicago-DFW kind of thing.

Sumers: Customer satisfaction scores, I think it’s generally believed that the number one driver is on-time performance. What else is driving satisfaction at United?

Jojo: It’s no surprise because the data’s there, on-time reliability is number one. Then the onboard experience — the product onboard as well as the service you receive onboard — and the airport experience. Eventually we get down to some of the other things, like the way you purchase the ticket and whatnot.

Sumers: You’ve been very focused at United on the app, which I think is fantastic. [Delta is] focused on their app, but they’re also very proud of their parallel reality at Detroit, and some other things that they’re doing at the airport with biometrics. Are you still a firm believer in mobile first? Are you looking at biometrics or this parallel reality, stuff like that?

Jojo: Yeah. We’re using biometrics in our international travel right now. Well, we’re experimenting with it in different places in the lobby. It’s really about giving customers choice, and increasingly people want to use digital to get through airports or to do things. They don’t actually want to talk to people. So, we have a lot of self-service capability in our app, really focused on that. We’ve added chat. We have Agent On Demand that allows you to actually use a QR code and talk to somebody live. Our contact centers are all still there because we know people are going to have different ways that they want to interact with us, and we’re just going to continue to add more. The idea is to figure out, is it useful? So, we try things out and then we see how people are actually going through the lobby. We’re doing a lot of innovation at our gates right now with technology, and we’re watching how people are using it. There’s actually some technology we’re going to probably take out of some of our mock-ups because people, they’re just not using it.

Sumers: What seemed like a brilliant idea in the meeting room that just doesn’t work?

Jojo: We have a lot of tablets now at the front of the gate areas, and that’s for people that haven’t brought an app with them and want to change their seat or check their next flight, or reprint their boarding pass. We also thought it’d be a great place to do Agent On Demand. It’s obvious sometimes when things fail that they fail, but this one failed because you really don’t want to be screaming in an airport gate area into the person on the tablet, all your personal information. First of all, they probably can’t hear because it tends to be noisy when those things happen, and so people weren’t using it.

Sumers: I just want to explain to everybody who doesn’t fly United as often as I do: Agent On Demand is this program where you basically speak to an agent on a tablet who’s not there at the airport, but does everything the airport agent would do?

Jojo: Yeah, you can snap a QR code and if you use Apple, it’s like a FaceTime chat with an agent. That agent might be in the airport you’re in, but more likely, especially if it’s a thunderstorm at Newark or a snowstorm in Denver, it might be somebody actually in Houston who is between banks and can actually help, and it’s not as stressful and they can actually help you out, versus waiting in a line somewhere.

Sumers: Given the extremely long lines we’ll see at airports sometimes, this seems like such an obvious idea. Somebody must have had it before United did. Was it technology that kept us from getting this until now or something else?

Jojo: I think in that case, that’s a great example of how we innovate at United all the time, which is the ideas don’t come from a conference room in downtown Chicago — they come from, actually, people that are working in the airports. This was an idea that came from the airport.

Sumers: So, another innovation I want to talk about was your program, Every Flight Tells a Story, where if your flight is delayed or something’s wrong, the app will tell you why and what’s going on. I have to tell you that I’ve noticed that some of these people who write these messages don’t have journalism degrees like me, and sometimes they’re a little bit weird. But I think generally speaking, it’s been a success, right? What have you learned about what you can say on the app and what is going to freak people out?

Jojo: So, Every Flight Has a Story is the inside name. When we started mocking it up, we would give you strange or cryptic reasons for delays: maintenance issue, weather. You’d look out and you’d say, “Well, the sun is shining. What does it mean, weather?” I traveled before I joined the airline. I traveled millions of miles for business travel, and I’m a control freak. I want to know what my options are, I want to know what’s going to happen, so I can figure out whether I should go to the airport or check out of my hotel room. So, Every Flight Has a Story will give you more information about what’s happening. That’s a great thing, but we learned that you can’t talk in airline jargon, you have to talk in English. And that also, sometimes they need enough information to make the decision they need to make. They don’t need to know which part number we’re waiting for to fix the door on the lab or whatever it happens to be. So, we have definitely tuned those. We also use technology to actually figure out which message to send out and we’ve tuned that as well.

Sumers: So, they give you a little bit less information now maybe, but that probably works better from the airline angle.

Jojo: I don’t know if it’s less information, but … the detail isn’t exactly there because it doesn’t necessarily mean anything to people.

Sumers: Let me ask you this question that I’m contractually obligated to ask. It’s an easy one, but everybody always wants to know about wifi. The price of wifi at United has come down considerably during the pandemic. I think it’s only $8 on domestic flights.

Jojo: Yeah, six bucks if you have the credit card on every single flight domestically, no matter how far it is.

Sumers: But the follow-up question is, can it be free? Will it be free? Can the bandwidth even handle that? Has the bandwidth been able to accept the pricing where the take rate becomes higher?

Jojo: We’re watching that now. Definitely, there was a little bit of a bump in take rate. There wasn’t a huge bump in take rate, which I thought was interesting. We are very worried about just the technology of having everybody — probably not just with one device, they’ll have two; they’ll have their laptop and their phone probably connected — for the satellites to be able to handle this. Because it’s not just the plane you’re on, it’s all the planes in the area that are using the satellite. We’re concerned about that level of saturation. So, a small price creates a little bit of friction that we think is a way to help. People that really need it are going to be able to have it and use it, versus someone that didn’t realize their phone was streaming from the last movie they had. So, it’s a way to manage that.

Sumers: But another progress that you’ve made onboard is, Scott Kirby has decided that he has always loved In-Flight Entertainment. He loves those screens. He took them off at several airlines, but he loves them. Did you just see what customers wanted and you realized that. actually. screens belong in airplanes?

Jojo: Well, I think to be fair, we’re all using screens differently than we did five years ago. Everybody has two screens now, not one. You were doing one thing or another. Now you’re watching the movie or the sporting event on the screen in front of you, and then you’ve got your iPad or your laptop open and you’re doing your email or whatever. You really do want both, and I think that was a trend that we missed.

Sumers: You have all these companies that are running as United Express and they have to meet your brand standards. So, how do you ensure a seamless positive customer experience and how can that be tracked?

Jojo: The first thing is we provide them with the same tools and data that our employees have. So, just like every one of our employees has an iPad or an iPhone, we also provide that to make sure that the pilots and the flight attendants of our partners have that, and they have the same level of information that they can use. I think increasingly what we’re looking at, and we’re thinking about this through all of our employees, is we are hiring a lot of people. We’ll hire 15,000 people this year, 15,000 people next year. That’s a massively good opportunity to train for service, and we’re going to be offering that as well to the partner airlines that are interested in that. Certainly the ones that fly exclusively for us are very interested in doing that, and we’re happy to provide it.

Sumers: When I get on a SkyWest Airlines airplane at LAX, is your goal for me as the customer not to know that this is any different than United Airlines, or is there some allowance made?

Jojo: Now, you and the people in this room and self-professed app geeks know it’s different, but I’ll tell you right now, customers don’t know now that it’s different. So, yeah. We have to have that expectation.

Sumers: I want to ask you a bit more of a broad question, because I think for a while a lot of us thought that this pandemic was going to be just a life changing experience, and it was in many ways. But I’m curious from a customer point of view, does what the customer want from the airline — is it any different now from what the customer wanted in 2019? Or is it like the pandemic never happened?

Jojo: That is a question that we are really focusing on answering. I think things are evolving a little bit in terms of when they travel, when customers travel and why they travel. But as I think about customers, generations are changing. It always happens. Every generation has a different expectation of what good customer service is. That’s what we’re going to be planning for, is what our customers in the future are thinking about in terms of customer service. Personalization is a great example. There’s a much higher expectation for relevant personal experiences, but not too much. We’ll continue on that journey to make sure that that happens. The data shows us, as well, that people are traveling differently. We know when you’re traveling purely for business, you have certain expectations. When you’re traveling purely for leisure, you have certain expectations. What if you’re doing both? So, really trying to predict that and understand what that’s going to do to the experience is what we’re trying to figure out right now.

Sumers: I worry about — people weren’t going to want to touch screens that somebody else touched, or get too close to agents: that sort of stuff must have gone away at some point, right?

Jojo: I think it has for some, but if folks want to wear a mask, and we’ll always have wipes on the airplane and if somebody wants to wipe everything down, even though we’ve just cleaned it, we’re going to let them do that. I mean, we want them to be comfortable flying.

Sumers: So, you do clean the airplanes?

Jojo: I don’t personally, Brian. But yes, we have people that clean the airplanes.

Sumers: Just like you exposed Agent On Demand via tablets, would United consider allowing customer experience engagements with the contact center via the inflight screen?

Jojo: You actually already can. We don’t have an inflight screen everywhere, but if you bring a tablet with you and you bring up the wifi portal, you can actually chat with an agent right now.

Sumers: Are people doing it? Do they even know it’s there?

Jojo: I haven’t checked in terms of what they’re doing on the airplane, but customers very much prefer chat. Twenty-five percent of our interactions now are actually via chat. People don’t want to make the call anyway.

Sumers: Why would you ever want to pick up the phone and talk to another human being? It’s horrible.

Jojo: My mother loves it. She loves it when she has to make a customer service call.

Sumers: Presumably, you oversee contact centers. This makes the contact agents more productive, right? It’s a win-win?

Jojo: It’s a win-win. I mean, I would say our agents are in the same boat. Some of them would prefer to chat versus talk on the phone as well. So, they’re opting to do that and it’s working out great.

Sumers: You and I did this five years ago or so, and it was like the week after United took tomato juice off the airplanes because nobody was drinking it, you said, and there was a big blow back on the internet and you had to bring it back. You said then, and you’re probably going to tell me now, you have data. You brought the tomato juice back. Does anybody drink this stuff?

Jojo: Nowhere near as many people drink tomato juice on the plane as say they do on the ground. By the way, that’s also true about healthy meals. You do a survey and you ask people, “Hey, what would you like us to serve on the airplane?” They say, all natural, healthy, organic. What’s the number one thing people buy on the airplane? The cheeseburger. Cheeseburger is by far the number one thing that people choose, and if they purchase, they buy.

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Tags: airline food, passenger experience, saf2022, skift live, tech, united airlines

Photo credit: Linda Jojo (left), chief customer officer for United Airlines, in discussion with Brian Sumers, editor at large for Skift, at Skift Aviation Forum in Dallas. Dylan Pacholek / Skift

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