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O’Hare International Airport is one of the United Airlines hubs that got the “Google Street View” treatment in the airline’s updated mobile app. Image via Wikipedia

APEX Insight: The interactive indoor map feature in United Airlines’ updated mobile app connects the dots from point A to B so travelers can navigate the airport more efficiently.

We have disturbingly accurate first-person views of our city streets, but that quality of mapping has not yet made it into the airport. Open just about any airline app and, if you get a map at all, it’s a vague grey blob of underwhelmingness.

United Airlines is looking to buck that trend by introducing a powerful new tool to its branded app: ultra-detailed, scaleable mapping so you can skip the kiosk and explore the airport’s terminals for restaurants, restrooms and ATMs on your own. United turned to Bay Area-based LocusLabs, who specialize in indoor mapping technology to map seven of its main US hubs. In order to keep those maps up-to-date, LocusLabs partnered with trusted folks at each location to relay any important changes to the airport landscape.

The typical passenger experience at an airport falls into two main categories, explains LocusLabs CEO, Campbell Kennedy: “You’re either short on time and you want to find the optimal route to get there as fast as possible, or you’ve got four to six hours on a layover and you’re trying to find the best way to use your idle-time.”

If you’re picturing Google Street View for airports, you’re on the right track. Turns out Kennedy also worked on Google’s self-driving car technology.

“Every airline app has maps in it today, but they’re not useful, really, at all.” – Campbell Kennedy, LocusLabs

Mapping it Out, Step by Step

“There is a very physical component to maps,” says Kennedy. “Every airline app has maps in it today, but they’re not useful, really, at all.” The reason so many airline-app maps fail, he adds, is that they scrape existing data and layer it over an existing footprint-map of the airport. “That doesn’t help you solve any problems, and it doesn’t help the airline solve any problems for their passengers.”

There’s a way to do it right, and it requires comfortable shoes. “Sometimes you gotta just bite the bullet and say, ‘Okay, we’re gonna walk this whole airport in order to get the data,’” says Kennedy with a laugh. “We do what we need to do, and that’s how our business works.” So LocusLabs walked the floors of major airports with their own indoor mapping devices, capturing what would be the foundation for their interactive maps: the step-by-step layouts of an airport’s public spaces.

If you’re envisioning a baby-stroller version of the Google Street View car, Kennedy assures that you are correct. Hey, you have to use the right tool for the right job and environment.

United App: Screenshots courtesy of United Airlines

United Airlines app: Screenshots courtesy of United Airlines

Are You Being Mapped?

While United isn’t using the app to actually track its customers, that potential still exists. The most obvious use-case for passenger tracking would be contextual marketing, but as United spokesperson Jennifer Dohm told TechCrunch, “We don’t necessarily have the need to track the customer.” While behavior-based marketing opportunities abound, Kennedy says, “Those other opportunities unfold after addressing the passenger’s needs first.”

 “That’s why I thought United was such a good launch customer,” Kennedy adds. “They said: ‘We want to help our customers get through the airport.’ That’s it. It wasn’t ‘We want to sniff data from them.’”

United Airlines’ app is now available for all major Apple platforms including the Apple Watch, with an Android release to come. Interactive maps are currently live for:

  • Chicago O’Hare Airport (ORD)
  • Denver International Airport (DEN)
  • Houston Bush Intercontinental Airport (IAH)
  • Los Angeles (LAX)
  • Newark Liberty Airport (EWR)
  • San Francisco International Airport (SFO)
  • Washington Dulles Airport (IAD)