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United Airlines set to leverage data to fly past rivals on mobile

United Airlines? relentless focus on satisfying customers on mobile has positioned it to leverage data to stand out in an industry struggling to catch up with the hotel sector and traditional retailers after years of severe cost-cutting, Mobile Marketer's analysis shows. 

The Chicago-based carrier is set to tap a huge cache of information about customers to meet demand for a simplified, faster travel experience. United?s achievements on mobile point to the need for airlines to use mobile to provide a bridge for the passenger between every aspect of air travel today, from searching and booking to inflight entertainment and baggage tracking.

?As an airline, we?re rich in data,? said Jennifer Dohm, a United spokeswoman. ?Data about our customers, about trends, about airports, flight times, operations and more. 

?The biggest opportunity for us is to continue to cross-reference that data for better customer experience,? she said.

Push notifications
United has the ability to send out push notifications to customers during weather-related travel disruptions or cancellations and include links to options for customers on mobile to re-book or modify their travel plans. 

?We?re working to synchronize even more of our data and systems to better anticipate needs and disruptions for customers and elevate their digital travel experience,? Ms. Dohm said.

Scanning passports via mobile.

It is only logical that every investment United and other airlines make will be in mobile given the speed at which search on phones and tablets is overtaking desktops. More than half of passengers now book and pay for travel on mobile devices and tablets. 
United has led the industry with self-service and mobile technology solutions for years. In 1995, it was the first United States airline to deploy self-check-in kiosks in its airport terminals. Twelve years later, it was first to introduce mobile boarding passes, and to offer mobile boarding at all domestic airports it serves.
Last year, it became the first U.S. carrier to let customers use mobile to scan passports for international flight check-in. 

United?s biggest success so far may be its all-new mobile app launched in 2013.

The redesigned app, which has attracted more than 20 million users, allows users to get the most important flight and check-in information from a glance at a mobile phone.

?While the sheer number of app users is impressive ? more than 20 million currently ? and that number is quickly growing by the day, what is greater proof of success is the exponential growth of the number of sessions and times a user accesses the app each day,? Ms. Dohm said. ?This tells us that once a customer uses the app, they?re recognizing the value and using it more and more to enhance their journey from beginning to end.?
By studying how people use phones and apps, United was able to make its app more relevant and helpful to users, in turn accelerating the public?s expectation for faster, more convenient service. 

Enhancing inflight entertainment via mobile.
?By changing the app to help customers check in faster, avoid long airport lines and quickly find information, customers will see the app as a necessity rather than a luxury,? said Esha Shah, manager of mobile and strategy at Fetch. 
It is no longer a question of whether mobile transforms travel, but how quickly and to what extent it does so. Mobile apps offered by airlines are expected to achieve 90 percent market penetration this year.
?United deserves a lot of credit for making Wi-Fi available throughout most of its system on an ambitious timetable,? said Joseph Schwieterman, director of Chaddick Institute at DePaul University in United?s headquarters city of Chicago. ?Its commitment to getting this done was impressive.?

That said, United made some not-so-great technological decisions that have made its Wi-Fi offerings less than satisfactory on some planes. ?Things simply didn't work out the way it had hoped,? Mr. Schweiterman said. ?And unfortunately, fixing the problem is no simple task. The company now needs to play catch-up.?

Nevertheless, United is forging a reputation as a leader in providing inflight streaming of video entertainment.  
It has made in-flight entertainment available on smartphones and tablets through its app to satisfy the growing number of customers who prefer to consume entertainment on their customized, powerful personal devices rather than on the plane?s built-in screens.

?Believe me, business travelers notice when an airline's inflight entertainment system is substandard,? Mr. Schweiterman said. ?That can affect market share in a hurry.?

Brand interaction
The most noticeable trend about United?s mobile evolution is its consciousness of how customers use phones to interact with the brand. 

Blazing a mobile trail in the air.

?They have designed their app to make it a constant resource for their customers, so that they can rely on the app for everything they need while they?re traveling with UA,? Ms. Shah said. 

?With the rise of mobile wallets, people are storing more and more necessities on their phones because of its convenience. 

?By allowing users to store their passport photo on the UA app so there?s one less document customers have to get out their pocket at the airport, UA is evolving its experience to its customers? increasingly digital travel experience,? she said.

Final Take
Michael Barris is staff reporter on Mobile Marketer, New York