is adding instant messaging to its automated flight notification systems, underscoring the budding demand for the services.
The addition is to the Chicago-based air carrier's EasyUpdate service, which enables users to register to receive updates on or information about changes in flight schedules, departures, delays, cancellations, rebooking and seat upgrades, by phone, e-mail or SMS text messaging.
Now, the service will support the broadcast delivery of instant messages to users of Microsoft's.NET Alerts service, supported on the software giant's MSN Messenger and Windows Messenger IM clients on PCs and wireless devices. If users are offline, IMs sent via the service can be directed automatically to e-mail accounts, SMS messages, or simply stored for later.
Users can respond to the message as well -- approving a seat upgrade or schedule change, for instance.
Customers are entered into the EasyUpdate service during making a reservation; when customers purchase tickets, they are asked to provide their preferred choice for how they wish to receive notifications of schedule changes. For users registered with United's Mileage Plus rewards program, EasyUpdate automatically activates each time they fly United, if so desired.
The move marks the carrier as one of the first major airlines to adopt IM as an alerting tool.
"Given the popularity of instant messaging, we felt that incorporating this popular Microsoft technology into our EasyUpdate service would meet the needs of a great number of our customers," said John Tague, the carrier's executive vice president for customers. "Also, the urgency of flight information makes instant message notifications via Microsoft .NET Alerts a unique way for customers to stay updated."
United's service comes about through Centerpost, the airline's vendor for its messaging and alerting technology. Chicago-based Centerpost began working with both United and Microsoft in early 2001, signing the air carrier to its SmartDelivery platform. Initially, the deal entailed delivering travel advisories via e-mail, fax, pager, and voice. A year ago, Centerpost added automated schedule change notifications to the messaging services it handles for United.
"We interact with United's backend systems, and as events happen -- like a flight delay or a cancellation or a seat upgrade -- we're always filtering that data and matching it to United passengers, so we then look up and see how they wanted to receive their notifications," Clemons said. "Our software handles those kinds of filters ... and also the delivery component, to voice, fax, e-mail, wireless text messaging and now, through our relationship with Microsoft, instant messenger."
Naturally, such systems are aimed at getting time-sensitive information to customers quickly, who can then respond accordingly.
"We want to provide as many options for our customers and as many opportunities to notify them if there are any changes to our schedule and other information they need to know, and instant messaging is one of the best ways to do that," said United spokesman Jason Schechter.
The automated system ideally also will help United, the nation's second-largest air carrier, reduce call center costs. That's critical for the troubled carrier, which filed for bankruptcy in December and is seeking to exit Chapter 11 protection either this year or early next year.
The move also highlights the emerging attraction that instant and wireless messaging-based notification systems are finding in major companies. A handful of carriers like Singapore Airlines are already using systems that can send automated SMS messages to travelers. Increasingly, instant messaging is finding its way into the mix -- especially as more mobile devices add support for MSN Messenger and other IM clients.
Centerpost handles IM notifications for financial services clients including Charter Oneand ABN AMRO. United is the first of Centerpost's air carrier clients, which include Travelocity and ATA, to use the system's instant messaging support, "but we've got a lot of interest," Clemons said. "We're getting a lot of interest in multi-channel messaging ... with IM being kind of an up-and-coming channel for corporation-to-customer messaging."
In addition to Centerpost's clients, Microsoft's .NET Alerts are in use by Bank One, eBay, Expedia, and E*Trade. The past several months also have seen a number of other third-party vendors, like Comverseand MessageCast, aiming to follow Centerpost's lead by linking with .NET Alerts.
Microsoft's largest rivals in the IM sector, America Online and Yahoo!, both have alerting services of their own but thus far have generally used the services to promote only in-house offerings. AOL, a unit of AOL Time Warnerlast month began using its AOL Alerts and Reminders service to distribute news and headlines from sibling Time Inc. publications.
Christopher Saunders is managing editor of InstantMessagingPlanet.com.