When JetBlue launched a four-year digital transformation program called “Digital 2020” in 2016, no one expected the pressures of a pandemic in its final year. The program had several ambitious goals, including to refresh the user experience for customers booking travel or embarking upon a trip, and to reassess technology investments with an eye toward improving JetBlue’s speed and agility.
The fact that this transformation had been underway for several years benefited JetBlue in 2020, says Michael Stromer. However, the travel industry as a whole has taken a hard hit; JetBlue’s revenue in Q3 declined by 76 percent year-over-year.
“Especially with COVID, you just don’t have years to wait for new capabilities to come out. People need them now, and you’ve got to move quickly. But you can only move quickly if you set the team up, and set up your technology stack the right way to deliver that,” he says.
Stromer is the SVP and Chief Product Officer of Digital and Technology Products at JetBlue, where he reports to Eash Sundaram, Chief Digital and Technology Officer. In a recent interview with InnoLead, he spoke to the company’s digital transformation, its challenges and wins during the pandemic, and the products it has on the horizon.
A Responsive Redesign
One of the first tasks the transformation team undertook was redesigning JetBlue.com and the JetBlue mobile app to be a responsive experience. Prior to the redesign, there was no native web app experience. “Basically, we had somebody scraping the website, and then just serving up a mobile version of that. That was a very immature version of a mobile experience,” Stromer explains.
While the app was launched in 2012, it is updated constantly. Now, the app features capabilities such as mobile boarding passes, airport pickup services, city and airport guides, and more — earning it the top spot in the travel app category of J.D. Power’s 2019 Inaugural US Travel App Satisfaction Study. The app’s “Travel Mode” activates on the customer’s day of flight, providing useful pop-ups of information like airport wait times and airport maps.
After the redesign, the company saw increases in the number of people using the mobile app as their primary way of booking and receiving information about flights. There was also an increase in the amount of people who looked at flights on JetBlue.com, and ultimately booked them on the site.
“Our mobile adoption went through the roof because it was a much better user experience. Customer self-service rates went up, our direct share went up — people who were booking on JetBlue.com versus Expedia or one of the online travel agencies,” he says.
Revamping the mobile app also allowed the company to upgrade the mobile check-in and check-out experience at the airport, creating a more seamless experience at the freestanding kiosks. JetBlue.com also underwent another redesign in 2018 that added more capabilities and introduced a new look to the site.
Pivoting Digital Product Focus During the Pandemic
At the beginning of 2020, JetBlue was planning on using the year to expand its biometrics program — a technology similar to facial recognition that measures physical characteristics as a form of identification.
“The idea [of biometrics] is that as a customer, you really shouldn’t have to carry anything with you to the airport,” Stromer says. “You shouldn’t have to bring a boarding pass because it’s on your mobile device. You shouldn’t have to bring your passport. You should be able to walk up to the gate, and it should recognize your face and let you board the aircraft.”
The company did a lot of biometrics testing in 2019, he adds, but decided to slow down the rollout of this program to focus on COVID-related technologies.
At the onset of the pandemic, the customer support team was being flooded by flight cancellation requests. “They were getting literally hundreds of thousands of phone calls,” Stromer says. So, on the back-end, JetBlue put machine learning technology in place to help with the cancellation process and take some of the pressure off the team. The company also smoothed out the process by removing flight change or cancellation fees. These are all changes that would typically have taken months rather than weeks, he adds.
The airport kiosks also now offer a touchless experience, in which the customer almost entirely relies on their own mobile device rather than on touching the screen. The boarding pass is available on a customer’s mobile device, and it can be used to print bag tags from the kiosk as well. The airline was also the first to require customers to wear face coverings on flights and in the airport.
Innovating Around the Edges
Not all of the innovations on Stromer’s horizon are as groundbreaking as biometrics — but that’s okay, he says.
He prefers to focus on small changes that will improve customer experience over time. For example, one project he is currently focusing on would create an “add to cart” feature on JetBlue.com, which “may not seem like the newest thing in the world, but most airlines actually don’t do it.” This will allow customers to continuously return to the JetBlue website to book their trip, rather than requiring them to finish booking in one sitting.
Other incremental improvements are more detailed seat maps, as well as “buddy lists,” which would help customers book trips alongside people with whom they frequently travel and send notifications to both parties. Finally, Stromer’s team is working on fully integrating the app with push notifications — which tend to get nearly a 100 percent open rate, as opposed to the 25 percent open rate on emails, he says.
“Innovation isn’t always a nifty, new app. A lot of times, it’s innovation around the edges of existing products and services. The way my team and I try to think about the digital experiences is it’s not about just throwing out a cool, buzzy feature into the app… [It’s] more about…constantly improving the user flow,” he says.