‘We built ConnectionSaver all in-house, but only because we had the building blocks in place to make it happen,’ said United Airlines’ Linda Jojo.

“Digital transformation” is the current perennial topic at commercial aviation conferences, and while the term has a certain vague promise, United Airlines Chief Digital Officer sought to give the phrase more color and weight as she discussed the concept at Boyd IAFS in August.

During her appearance on stage and in a press briefing afterward, Jojo offered details of United’s two-year digital transformation. The process includes the way the carrier is incorporating technologies such as artificial intelligence and machine learning and mobility to create more seamless communication from guests to gate agents. Jojo also discussed the rollout of its app-based ConnectionSaver tool, its alliance with airport security scanner Clear, and Travel Inspiration, which offers personalized recommendations for MileagePlus loyalty members.

For United and Jojo, the motivation behind its tech focus is simple: to ease the major and minor inconveniences of the flying experience.

“As we put Clear lines through more airports, it’ll make the airport security process more pleasant and reduce the friction of flying,” Jojo said on stage. “Who likes waiting in lines?”

Building Connections In-House

Later, she explained United’s drive toward simplicity involves keeping as much tech development in-house among its digital team. That simplicity also underlies the emphasis on keeping passenger communications within the app, as opposed to tapping outside messaging platforms like WhatsApp.

“We think you should just use our app,” Jojo said. “Our app is pretty easy to get and you can make all those changes. We've made a powerful app. It’s not only for the day of travel, but when it comes to any of the changes a passenger might encounter.”

In June, United debuted ConnectionSaver after four months of beta testing. The offering is embedded in the carrier’s branded mobile app and automatically identifies departing flights that can be held for connecting customers. It’s designed to ensure that those who have already boarded the aircraft arrive at their destination on time.

ConnectionSaver also sends personalized text messages to every connecting customer (who has opted in to receive notifications) with clear directions to the gate for their connecting flight and information about how long the walk will take.

Among other features, the technology automatically scans flights for customers who are making tight connections to determine if the connecting flight can be held without inconveniencing other customers. The ConnectionSaver tool takes into account factors such as the time it will take for late connecting customers to travel gate-to-gate as well as the impact the hold may have on other flights and customers.

United Airlines Chief Digital Officer Linda Jojo with Michael Boyd at Boyd IAFS in Las Vegas.

Ideas Everywhere

Asked how ConnectionSaver was created and built, Jojo noted that it came from internal discussions.

“We are really focused on making sure people that have good ideas have places to talk about them,” Jojo said. “For example, we have a digital council, where, last summer, we had an intern make a presentation to the council that influenced our thinking [on a number of fronts]. Ideas literally can come from anywhere. The best mobile app we have is, for employees, is our technicians iPad. It was championed and led by somebody from a hangar in Newark. Our best idea has nothing to do with your pay grade or what floor you sit on at all.”

As for ConnectionSaver, it was developed “all in house, but only because we had the building blocks in place to make it happen,” Jojo told Kambr Media during the press conference.

Elaborating on the “building blocks,” Jojo added, “The actual glue of putting all that together and sending the text message was pretty easy. If gate agents didn't have mobile devices, you couldn't do it. If we didn't have investment in our analytics platform, you couldn't do it. You have to have all those things.”

An idea like ConnectionSaver starts with looking at all the points of communication that happen on a passenger’s day of travel. From there, the question United’s digital team poses among its members is: “What can we do to make your journey better?”

The answer typically that involves providing specific, immediate information as part of a trip are changing.

“If you haven't already checked in, we'll send you a text that prompts you to do so,” Jojo said. “As we get closer to boarding, if for some reason we've changed the gate, you're going to get that information sent to you. If your plane is delayed, we’ll send you updates: ‘Hey, your plane's in range, it's landed, and now it’s coming to the gate.’”

Ancillaries Get Mobile

United’s app is seeing more engagement, Jojo said, and the airline’s focus on mobile reflects broader consumer interests in where they not only get their information, but also in the way they shop.

“Let's face it, people are using apps today, not websites as much, so you have to build as much into the app as you can,” Jojo said. “We are working to make sure that everything you can do on the website, you can also do in the app. We're pretty much there.”

For the most part, the major functions of shopping, have now all migrated to the United app. And as it’s become second nature to mainstream consumers to order food and hail a ride via on-demand apps, Jojo said that such an environment is ideal for getting the most out of ancillaries.

“We actually see a lot of ancillary shopping in the app — it’s not just about accessing the boarding pass,” she said. “The thing about a mobile app as opposed to a website, is that it’s right in your hand practically all the time – so you tend to use it more often. We want to make sure that wherever you are, you can easily make a travel decision and act on it."

“Whether it's when you're still trying to decide whether you want to go to Las Vegas or not, you can look at the help and make a decision,” she said. “Or, once you've booked the ticket to Las Vegas, or you're getting ready for check-in, you can still update your trip according to external conditions or personal needs. Maybe you initially decided on an economy seat and now you want an upgrade to first class on your way home. We want to make sure that you can manage all that in the app today. You can also purchase a club pass and fill all those kinds of things.”

Testing AI/Machine Learning Strategies

Alongside mobile, the other area all airlines are looking to conquer is artificial intelligence and machine learning. We asked Jojo how she and her team are finding the balance between AI/machine learning and human intelligence. We also wanted to know how she believes United can achieve a similar balance between what’s immediately actionable and yet cutting edge enough to demonstrate a higher level of innovation?

“There's a spectrum of things,” she said. “First, we don't mess around with safety and security – let’s start with that okay. Apart from that, we do all kinds of live, in-app and on the web testing all the time to see what customers like. We have a lot of volume on our website, so we can actually try things with 10 percent of the customers for two hours. We can learn a lot doing that. And we're doing that all the time.”

United’s MilePlay program, which offers travel incentives via targeted promotions to members of the airline’s MileagePlus loyalty program, reflects the company’s overall digital experimentation with respect to machine learning, Jojo said.

“I wouldn’t say the word ‘never,’ but it's not likely that you're going to get a big, blanket email from United that tries to incentivize you to purchase more tickets or purchase more Economy-plus seats,” Jojo said. “Instead, we're very targeted about who you are. Targeted promotions like MilePlay are based on your purchasing habits. We target an offer that is literally just for you to get you to change your habits. We know that once people buy Economy-plus, they're more like to buy it again. So if you've never bought Economy-plus but you fly with us a lot, we incentivize you through miles to do that.”

The machine learning powers that “right offer, at the right time, to the right customer.” To ensure that the traveler bites, United also has a bit of gamification added into the mix, Jojo said.

“We don't want to put an offer out that nobody either takes to begin with and tries, or an offer that nobody actually wins,” Jojo said. “You have to have something that's enticing. At the same time, you don't want to give away too much. A promotional offer fails when what you're offering is something that the customer was going to do anyway. We use a lot of AI to actually tune those models.”

While working in-house sets the tone for what kind of technology United will use, it will seek out partners when the capabilities are beyond what an airline can do.

Tapping Clear on its biometric-based security line screening is a prime example.

“Technology is not an end in itself for us; I want to know what's in it for our customers,” Jojo said. “For example, when it comes to biometric testing and things that are definitely ahead of us in terms of testing, I'd much rather partner with a company like Clear to figure it all out. Ultimately, it's about speed and priority.”