Tablets for Flight Attendants on American Airlines

In an effort to get closer to customers and improve sales, American Airlines is launching a new mobile strategy aimed at boosting customer loyalty by giving flight attendants tablets loaded with customer data.

It's hard to imagine employees and customers getting closer than they do in the aisles of an airplane, but American Airlines wants to get them even closer. Digitally, anyway.

The airline is testing a mobile system that provides flight attendants more passenger details with a goal of improving customer relations. Using Samsung devices, the pilot program has 40 of American's 10,000 flight attendants tapping and scrolling through data such as seat assignments, requests for special services, and a customer's loyalty program status and itinerary.

"The most time a customer spends with any employee is on the flight. Traditionally, we haven't done a great job of equipping flight attendants with info about who's on the plane," says CIO Maya Leibman. "If our [corporate] objective is to be a more customer-centric airline, we have to think about how are we are helping employees to have meaningful interactions with those customers."

Mobile technology can help companies create intimacy with customers, says Eric Openshaw, who leads the U.S. technology, media and telecommunications practice at Deloitte. Openshaw declines to talk about American specifically but notes that in general, mobile technology can help differentiate a company from its competitors. More personalized service can create a better customer experience, he says.

At American, mobility is a revolution, Leibman says. Other mobile applications now in use include a system for mechanics working on planes at airport terminals and one to let on-board crew report maintenance issues electronically. The flight attendant application, meanwhile, has been in testing since early spring and so far has made pre-flight activities go faster, which leads to more on-time departures, Leibman says.

The system will also build customer satisfaction and loyalty, she predicts, as flight attendants gain better insight into customer needs. American, which is reorganizing under Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, has announced plans to save $2 billion and produce $1 billion in new revenue annually. This project contributes to both of those corporate financial goals, Leibman says.

Only United, which is still working to integrate Continental after its 2010 acquisition, ranks worse in customer satisfaction than American among the eight airlines rated by the American Customer Satisfaction Index. Leibman, who assumed the CIO role in January after leading the AAdvantage loyalty program for a year, plans to infuse IT projects with customer service knowledge to help improve the airline's reputation.

American tested multiple Samsung devices, which are Android-based, and plans to use the Galaxy Note, with its 5-inch screen, partly because it can easily fit into the pocket of the apron many flight attendants wear, Leibman says.

Leibman wants to take the flight attendant system into production, but first she has to work out device policies, she says. Whether flight attendants will be allowed to download personal apps, for example, and what will happen if the devices are lost or stolen are questions yet to be answered.

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