Mobile air bookings on rise, but users' mileage might vary

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Photo Credit: Kaspars Grinvalds/Shutterstock

Bookings through airline apps are on the rise, but while carriers are working to improve their functionality, opinions about the overall quality of the apps remain divided.

A December Travelport Digital survey of 1,100 travelers found that 61% said they either "nearly always" or "sometimes" use a smartphone app to book flights. Meanwhile, Delta president Glen Hauenstein said in April that mobile bookings account for between 20% and 25% of the airline's total direct bookings. That number, he added, is steadily increasing.

Delta is among the U.S. airlines whose app has a strong rating from iPhone users, with a score of 4.8 out of a possible five. However, it isn't alone. Among the 10 primary mainline U.S. airlines, the apps of six of them (Delta, United, JetBlue, Alaska, Southwest and Frontier) have earned ratings of 4.7 or better from users on Apple's iOS platform. 

Still, the ratings are inconsistent, with the apps of the other four carries (American, Hawaiian, Allegiant and Spirit) having earned ratings of 3.2 or lower. Further, J.D. Power's inaugural U.S. Travel App Satisfaction Study found that customer scores for airline apps lagged scores for hotel and car rental apps, in part because they typically load more slowly during the day of service. 

J.D. Power also found that apps throughout the travel sector earned lower satisfaction numbers than credit card and retail banking apps. 

Reviews aside, there's no arguing that U.S. airlines have been diligently investing in and working on their app functionality. 

Perhaps most notably, United unveiled what it called a "reimagined app" in January. Among the improvements was more seamless access to check-in. Once check-in is completed, flyers have an opportunity to have their boarding pass populate on the app's home screen without selecting a boarding pass tab. 

Later during travel, the app is automatically updated to display onboard entertainment options, directions to connecting gates and information about what carousel the flyer should go to collect baggage. Last week, United won a Webby Award in the "business and finance" category for its revamped app. 

Hawaiian Airlines is another U.S. carrier that unveiled major app changes this year. Its new app, released in March, offers improved graphics, chat and real-time flight notifications. However, some reviewers on Apple's app store have panned it for routing the booking function back through the Hawaiian website. 

International airlines are also pouring resources into their apps and sometimes coming up with especially creative innovations. In September, for example, Dutch carrier KLM launched an augmented reality function on its app that enables customers to check if their carry-on bags meet the airline's size requirements.

Similarly, just last week, Spanish carrier Iberia unveiled an app feature that will tell customers whether bags can be carried on or must be checked, after customers scan the bags with their phones.

Henry Harteveldt, founder of Atmosphere Research Group, said airlines tend to focus their apps on several core functions: the planning and booking of flights, check-in, assistance in the case of a flight cancellation or other travel disruptions and loyalty program account management. 

"I would say that they are doing well with what they have," Harteveldt said. "They could do other things, such as improving how they merchandise and retail optional products. ... Our research shows that 50% to 90% of the selling opportunity for optionals comes after the reservation is made."

Harteveldt gave kudos to Delta, United and American for the bag-tracking capabilities they've built into their apps. And he credited Delta in particular for the functionality of its app when it comes to rebookings during irregular operations. 

"This is a really important part of what the mobile app needs to be about," he said. "Helping that traveler in a moment of crisis can earn loyalty."

Howard Blankenship, vice president of Americas for CellPoint Mobile, a mobile payment service provider that focuses on the airline industry, said carriers have also stepped up the payment options they offer via apps. But he noted that airline app teams compete for funding with carriers' other IT needs as well as with all manner of other needs. 

"They are investing greatly into these mobile apps, but you can only do so much with competing agendas across the airlines," Blankenship said.

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