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United Airlines deploys iPads for airport purchases funded by miles

United Airlines is offering consumers the option of using mileage redemption to pay for in-person purchases at Newark Liberty Airport’s Terminal C restaurants and stores.

The option is available to members of United Airlines’ MileagePlus rewards program and was developed with travel restaurateur OTG Management’s technology. In total, nearly 6,000 iPads will be stationed around the New Jersey airport’s Terminal C in a bid to elevate the airport experience with sophisticated technology, dining and design.

“There’s a lot of activity around ‘pay with points’ right now; American Express has enabled it with New York taxicabs, and MasterCard recently unveiled a pay with points capability that can be used with retail outlets,” said Thad Peterson, senior analyst at Aite Group, Atlanta.  “Incorporating the ability to use mileage plus miles to pay for food at the airport is a great way for United to extend their brand and improve the perceived value of the program, but I’m not sure how popular it will be with customers.

“It depends on the customer perception of their points.”

Mr. Peterson is not affiliated with United, but agreed to comment as a mobile payments expert.

Innovative technology
Customers at Newark Liberty Airport will be able to scan their boarding passes or manually enter their MileagePlus number at one of the designated iPads that will be stationed in the terminal’s gate areas, bars and restaurants.

The tablet will show the individual’s current flight information and will give visual suggestions of dining and beverage options in up to twenty languages.

The cost of the options will be displayed in dollars and in MileagePlus miles, giving consumers the option at checkout to pay with whichever medium they find most convenient.

United is aiming to offer a flyer-friendly experience in airports as well as on its airplanes, and believes that the installation of the iPads will lead to an exceptional customer experience and seamless checkout process.

“Travelers have already become accustomed to scanning their boarding passes,” said Djamel Agaoua, CEO of MobPartner, San Francisco. “This new technology is an offshoot of that action yet so it’s not like they’re introducing or need to teach their tech-savvy travelers a new behavior.”

Travel lifestyle
The iPad rollout is certain to augment the travel-as-a-lifestyle strategy that United Airlines is focused on marketing to its current and potential clients. OTG’s technologies have already seen success in implementations at New York’s John F. Kennedy International and LaGuardia airports.

The electronic payment technology is just one part of Newark Liberty’s plans to transform the terminal shopping and dining experience. The $120 million project also includes more than 55 new dining venues slated to open within the next 18 months, including four Michelin-starred restaurants, and a redesigning of gate areas to simulate a lounge-like atmosphere.

The iPads will also be located in the gate areas, where guests can order food and beverages among other amenities using the tablets, and have the orders brought to their seats within 15 minutes.

The redesigning of Newark Liberty’s Terminal C is currently underway, while the entire experience is expected to be unveiled in summer 2015. More than 45 of the terminal’s eateries and retail stores will open over the next two to three months in a transition program.

“I think some airlines will follow suit and incorporate similar types, and others will sit on the sidelines and evaluate the performance of their competitors,” Mr. Agaoua said.

“This is true innovation. It marks the first time travelers will have the option to use mileage redemption for in-person purchases. And, no other airline is doing what United is doing especially at this scale, which is pretty remarkable.”

Final Take
Alex Samuely is an editorial assistant on Mobile Commerce Daily, New York