Mobile Marketer has re-launched! Click here to learn more!

United Airlines tests beacons to navigate travelers at the airport

In a potentially significant jump forward for the use of beacons by air travelers, United Airlines is beta testing the technology at Newark Liberty Int?l Airport to make it easier for customers to find their way around the complex.  

While several airports have installed beacons to provide helpful information to travelers, it is not clear how widely accessed these services are as the technology requires a mobile application to interact with smartphones. Since many flyers today often have an airline?s app on their smartphones, bringing beacon-enabled interactions to these apps could potentially reach more flyers. 

?It makes 100 percent sense for United Airlines to use this close relationship they have with customers that use their app and their airlines to make that relationship even more useful,? said Lara Mehanna, general manager of U.S. at vice president of sales and business development at Sonata Local.

?If I know that United is not only going to care for me getting on their flight but also navigating the airport and contributing to a much more seamless and enjoyable travel experience, I would be more inclined to select United every time I fly,? she said. 

Indoor location
In a significant update to the United Airlines mobile application, users now have access to new navigation and booking tools to make airport experiences less stressful and more interactive. 

At United Airlines? New York/Newark hub, customers with the app on their phones can access a new interactive map that, through the use of Bluetooth low-energy beacons and indoor location technology, will pinpoint users? location within the airport and navigate them toward various locations. This eliminates the need for users to pin their location themselves. 

United intends to expand the feature to other airports based on customer feedback.


Beacons are poised to play an important role for travelers at airports in the near future. 

According to a survey from earlier this year by flight information company Flightview, 53 percent of travelers in the United States would like for airports to track their mobile devices to send real-time updates on gate changes and flight times, but would not want to release personally identifiable information (see story). 

Interactive maps
In addition to the beacon beta test, customers in several major cities can access new interactive indoor maps of the airports. 

The interactive maps enable customers to search quickly for nearby airport vendors and services such as restaurants, ATM locations or family restrooms. Travelers can also easily navigate to gates throughout the terminal. 

Several airport maps also include navigation to rental car facilities and on-site airport hotels.


The app will guide customers to their desired destinations within the terminal, estimating walk times to make flight connections easier.

If customers have a boarding pass stored in the app, the map will automatically default to start navigation at that specific gate location. Alternatively, users can place a pin at their current location to indicate where they are in the airport.

The maps are available for United?s Chicago, Denver, Houston, Los Angeles, New York/Newark, San Francisco and Washington hubs, with more airports to be added soon.

All users of the app can also now take advantage of a new self-booking function for faster re-booking when a flight is delayed or cancelled. With a few clicks in the app, customers may choose from a variety of flight options including alternate airports or, if a confirmed seat is not available on their preferred flights, add themselves to a standby list for an earlier flight.

These updates are available for iOS devices and are coming soon for Android. 

Building brand loyalty
Mobile is a growing part of how United Airlines interacts with customers. 

United's mobile app has been downloaded more than 20 million times since its launch in November 2013.  

The airline also claims a couple of mobile first, including that, in 2014, it was the first U.S. airline to enable customers to scan their passports to check in for international flights via their mobile devices, and was also the first airline to partner with Uber for ground transportation services through the airline's app.

United worked with LocusLabs, a San Francisco-based tech start-up, to create and scale-out the custom indoor experience for the app.

?There are so many ways that beacons can promote and introduce content to travelers,? Ms. Mehanna said. ?I still advise airlines to go with caution in how many notifications they send to consumers but starting from the utility side, imagine if you could get updates on how far you are from the gate as you are going through security, checking your bag, grabbing a bite to eat etc.  

?Providing the useful information can then start to expose opportunities for shopping, eating/drinking, united lounge, and much more,? she said. ?By being more interactive with customers, United is building brand loyalty. 

?An easier airport experience can go a long way and with all the airfare wars, loyalty is what goes that extra mile.?

Final Take
Chantal Tode is senior editor on Mobile Marketer, New York