United Continental Taps Apple and IBM for Mobile Tech Overhaul

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United Continental Holdings Inc. plans a major overhaul of its mobile technology, which will include the development of new apps and the upgrade of the iPhones and iPads used by 50,000 flight and ground employees. The air carrier will work with Apple Inc. and International Business Machines Corp., which announced an alliance three years ago to develop business apps for Apple’s mobile devices.

The overhaul, which will include integration of the newly coded apps with older technology that manages customer and operations data, represents an effort by the airline to stop using one-off mobile apps and build a suite of apps, according to Jason Birnbaum, vice president of operations technology at United.

The company is looking for ways in which employees can make greater use of mobile technology. As part of the overhaul, the airline has defined at least 39 roles of employees involved in a typical flight, Mr. Birnbaum said in an interview. In one scenario, a gate agent waiting for a late-arriving passenger who is on the way from a connecting flight might query an app that the pilot has updated to determine if the door can be left open a few extra minutes, he said. Today, that information is often relayed by voice, with employees moving between plane, ramp and doorway. “We want to create a social community around a flight,” he said.

United expects this year to use some of the 12 iOS airline industry apps that IBM has built as part of its MobileFirst for iOS line. IBM and Apple announced the alliance in 2014, in an effort to sell more business apps, iPhones and iPads to corporate customers.

The airline also plans to write new apps with IBM that will be more tailored to United operations, he said. The intent is to give flight attendants, gate agents and other airline personnel access to data about customer histories and reservations, as well as real-time information about flight plans. In the event of a delay, for example, a flight attendant could use a mobile app to offer a specific passenger alternate connecting flights suited to his travel habits and rebook the ticket before touching down, Mr. Birnbaum said.

United last month experienced a computer glitch that affected hundreds of flights. It was the latest in a rash of computer failures disrupting U.S. air carriers.

Eventually, artificial intelligence via IBM’s Watson could help United further customize choices to individual flyers and enable natural language processing for agents or technicians . “In irregular operations, this is key,” said Dee Waddell, global managing director of travel and transportation industries at IBM. “They may not have time to type.”

United plans to issue iPhones for more customer service agents in airport terminals, especially because the wireless devices can help service unexpected crowds, Mr. Birnbaum said. Instead of agents being tied to PCs at podiums, they could fan out in gate areas during a surge in traffic during delays, he said.

Flight attendants at United typically use iPhone 6-Plus devices with apps for basic services such as ordering food. Now the airline wants to build a suite of in-flight apps that may, for example, guide attendants to suggest items to offer to specific customers during flights, Mr. Birnbaum said. An attendant who spills a drink on a flyer could use the app to add miles to the customer’s loyalty account as compensation, he said.

United expects to upgrade flight attendants to iPhone 7 models in another year, he estimated. The airline is testing the Apple Watch, but has no definite plans to deploy the wearable, he said. “We’re still trying to understand how they fit into the landscape for us. We feel like there’s an opportunity but haven’t found the perfect spot.”