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Custom iOS apps make skies friendly for United pilots

United Airlines, one of the largest airlines in the world, uses custom iOS apps and VMware AirWatch enterprise mobility management software to keep passengers safe.

ATLANTA -- When there is no IT admin to help at 40,000 feet, reliable technology is key.

The stakes are high -- both physically and figuratively -- for the United Airlines IT and operations teams, whose job it is to ensure that pilots' apps and devices work correctly when they need them. With more than 4,500 departures a day, the airline must implement the best mobile technology it can. That's why United developed and deployed Apple iOS apps, said Jon Merritt, director of flight operations CNS programs and cockpit technology at United Airlines.

"Mobility has allowed us to give our pilots the tools they need, no matter where they are -- whether they are in the air at 40,000 feet or at a gate," he said. "We are trying to provide information that our pilots need at the palm of their hands."

Merritt discussed United's use of custom iOS apps and other mobile technology during a session and interview here at AirWatch Connect, the annual user conference for VMware's enterprise mobility management (EMM) division.

Inside United's iOS mobile apps

United, an AirWatch customer, built custom iOS apps to serve a variety of purposes. One app lets pilots track the weather to identify areas where there is more turbulence. The app displays real-time satellite images, maps and other information and lets pilots know how far away the flight is from any hectic areas.

United built custom iOS apps to serve a variety of purposes.

United has an app in the works that will allow pilots to track where other planes are in the sky, along with their speed, so they could better distance their aircrafts from others. Another app allows pilots and flight staff to receive real-time updates on gate changes, arrival times and more. That app replaced paper documents, which typically provided information that was hours behind.

Prior to this custom app, many passengers would receive this information from third-party consumer flight apps before the airline staff did, Merritt said.

"What I'm striving to do is make that better," he said. "We only make that better by using technology."

United chose AirWatch to manage its iOS devices, applications and content because of the vendor's value and -- most importantly, for an airline -- its reliability, Merritt said.

"Consistency is absolutely the key," he said.

When a flight crew runs into technical issues in the air, ''it doesn't have an IT person onboard to help. That is why the IT and operations staff must mitigate all possible problems before they occur.

"You don't get that same response at that altitude," Merritt said. "It's not just a mobile device deployment, it's part of what we're trying to do to keep people safe."

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