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What works: Southwest or United Airlines’ approach to mobile travel

September 17, 2012

Context is everything when it comes to developing mobile applications and sites. Here is how two of the biggest airline brands are taking a user-first approach with their apps and mobile Web sites.

Consumers are increasingly using their mobile devices to make travel plans on the spot. This presents particularly strong implications for airlines to let users find, book and cancel flights and if used correctly can be effective at converting travelers into valued loyalty members.

“Because we’re a global airline, our customers want and need up-to-date, accurate information 24/7 – so they’re turning to mobile devices more and more, both at home and on the go. With that in mind, we ensure that our systems are continuously updated with the most current travel information,” said Jeff Ulrich, senior manager of emerging technology at United Airlines, Chicago.

“Booking and flight information are very important for our customers,” he said. “All the travel-planning information they need to search and book flights is at their fingertips.”

United Airlines

IPhone app:
One of the primary features of United’s iPhone app lets users check-in and use their device as an electronic boarding pass. Once a user checks into a flight, consumers can save the boarding pass with a “wallet” feature that also includes information on their reservations and status notifications.

When users download the app, they are asked if it is OK to send push notifications. For an airline, push notifications can be a great feature to keep loyal travelers up-to-date on travel plans.

United’s iPhone app

To book a flight, the app uses GPS to find the nearest airports. The app also lets users pick a departing date, a returning date and price range all from one page.

Consumers can also view airport and flight maps via the app.

United is clearly using its iPhone app to primarily target its loyalty members while also aiming to attract new members. By using features such as electronic boarding passes and the device’s GPS, United’s app is where the company stands out in the industry.

Mobile site:
United’s mobile site automatically redirects at

The primary function of the app is to help last-minute travelers book flights and access their travel plans. Although the site is not full of bells and whistles, it is effective for the company because it helps solve a specific pain point for users.

A link at the bottom of the screen encourages consumers to download the brand’s iPhone app. However, the link is small and could be better if it was prominently placed at the top of the screen.

United also runs interstitial ads on the site to encourage users to download the company’s app.

The flight information section on United’s mobile site

The top of the site lets account members sign-in using their account number or username. Additionally, consumers can enroll in the company’s MileagePlus program.

The mobile site contains four main features – booking a flight, flight check-in, flight status and my account.

When booking a flight, the site automatically sets the departing date as the current date. Unlike the brand’s app, consumers must then type in both their departing and returning destinations. Once a few letters are typed in, the site recognizes the city and pulls up recommended cities. To make this feature faster for users, the site could use a device’s built-in GPS to automatically determine where a user is.

The mobile site also lets users check-in for flights by using a confirmation number, ticket number or MileagePlus number.

Other features of the site let users set flight reminders, which are sent as either an email or a text message. Consumers can then choose how far in advance they want to be notified, from four hours ahead of time to one hour.


IPhone app:
Price alerts are one of the most noticeable features in Southwest’s iPhone app.

At the top of the page, consumers can sign up to receive alerts by entering their home airport and their loyalty program – called Rapid Rewards – account information.

Southwest’s booking feature in the iPhone app

The app is spread out with colorful big buttons that let users make air reservations, check flight statuses and access their Rapid Rewards information.

Consumers can either book a flight, add early bird check-in, change a flight or cancel travel plans from inside the app. In order to check-in through the company’s early bird program through, consumers need their flight confirmation, which can be lengthy and difficult to enter on a small mobile screen.

However, signing up for a Rapid Rewards account is much easier through the app. Consumers are taken through three pages that are set up to let users easily enter information.

Consumers can also book a car reservation via the mobile app.

Mobile site:
Southwest’s mobile site is

The site is laid out so that consumers can check air reservations and check-in for flights at the top of the screen.

Southwest does not promote its app on its mobile site. Given how app users tend to be more loyal, the brand could be missing a big opportunity to drive downloads and awareness of its app.

Southwest’s mobile site

Additionally, Southwest’s Rapid Rewards program is actively promoted at the top of the screen.

Instead of using its mobile site solely for bookings, Southwest is aiming to make its mobile site more of an all-in-one travel booking hub. For example, similar to the company’s app, consumers can also book a car reservation through the mobile site.

Consumers have to choose a departing and arriving location when booking a flight. Instead of typing in a location, the site uses a drop-down menu of cities where Southwest offers service. The flight booking page also includes required items that are indicated with an asterisk, which could be further slimmed down to only include the most necessary information.

Another key feature on Southwest’s mobile site includes searching for flights statuses.

“Our mobile app has our top features on it and offers the opportunity to click through to the full Web site. Many of the options are quick, on-the-go actions for customers who need to do things like check-in, check Rapid Rewards profile and change flight plans,” said Whitney Eichinger, a spokeswoman for Southwest Airlines, Dallas, TX.

Final Take
Lauren Johnson is associate reporter on Mobile Commerce Daily, New York

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One Response to “What works: Southwest or United Airlines’ approach to mobile travel”

  1. MJ Says:

    Helpful. Thanks.

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