About 23,000 United Airlines flight attendants will be getting Apple iPhone 6 Plus smartphones from the airline starting in the second quarter of 2015 to beef up and expand the company's customer service in the air around the world.
United announced the iPhone 6 Plus initiative Dec. 10, touting a wide range of expected benefits for flight attendants, including the ability to check flight connections for customers and to sell instant seat upgrades for premium Economy Plus seats in aircraft cabins. Other benefits will include simplified sales of on-board food items and the ability of all flight attendants to have personal Internet access during flights.
"We are thrilled to make this investment in our flight attendants," Sam Risoli, United's senior vice president of inflight services, said in a statement. "iPhone 6 Plus will enable them to deliver an even higher level of flyer-friendly service and will offer our flight attendants simple, one-touch access to valuable work information, enabling them to better serve our customers."
Flight attendants will also gain access to company email and intranet sites, as well as electronic copies of airline safety manuals.
Karen May, a United spokeswoman, told eWEEK in a telephone interview that United chose to deploy iPhone 6 Plus smartphones after conducting extensive research into a variety of devices.
"We also heard from flight attendants that they really like Apple products," said May. The research concluded that the devices to get were Apple's latest and largest smartphones, she said.
The rollout will begin sometime in the second quarter of 2015 and is expected to take several months to be completed, according to May. The price tag for the project is not being disclosed.
The major benefit of the project will be putting all of these tools and information right into the hands of United's flight attendants while they are already serving customers and performing their duties, said May. "Having all those manuals and all of those tools loaded on the devices will give flight attendants easier access," she said. "We think that will transfer into an even better customer experience."
Additional apps and services that will focus on customer service will be added in the future, she said. Airline operations manuals will also eventually be loaded onto the iPhones, as well as capabilities for real-time reporting and improved follow-up on aircraft cabin issues and repairs.
Presently, United flight attendants sell on-board food to passengers using a small, handheld payment processing device that can swipe credit cards from passengers. The iPhone 6 Plus smartphones will be equipped with similar credit card readers, said May. The vendor who provided the existing card readers is working with the airline to develop the software that will provide the same function on the iPhones.
For United, adding smartphones and other devices in the name of more efficient service for passengers is not a new topic. Back in 2011, the airline began rolling out Apple iPads to pilots and other flight crew members as it began creating electronic flight bags to save space and weight, increase efficiency and simplify tasks for its pilots.
"This is another step in the direction of having a paperless aircraft" for employees, said May. The airline is presently upgrading pilots to new Apple iPad Air 2 devices, she added.
Could similar tablets or smartphones also be used in the future by United baggage handlers, gate agents and other workers?
"We're certainly willing to look at anything that is going to help our employees do their jobs even better to help our customers get an even better experience," said May.
Other airlines have also been bringing mobile devices into their operations around the world in the last several years.
In November, Samsung and Iberia Airlines unveiled a smartwatch app that allows users to board an Iberia flight with a scan of the watch on their wrist, rather than having to hold a paper boarding pass or juggle a smartphone as they finagle their luggage. The new app works so far on the Samsung Gear 2 and Gear Neo smartwatches.
Another airline, Virgin Atlantic, conducted its own technology experiments in February when it introduced Google Glass and other wearable technologies to a group of employees at London's Heathrow Airport to see how the eyewear-mounted devices could assist the airline's passengers. The devices were used by Virgin Atlantic employees to assist passengers from their arrival at an airport through boarding and departure, and even with their in-flight experiences, according to an earlier eWEEK report.
In 2013, Delta Air Lines provided Nokia Lumia 820 smartphones to some 19,000 flight attendants to bolster its customer service, while in 2011 Alaska Airlines provided iPads to all of its approximately 1,500 pilots to give them electronic flight bags.