No doubt in my mind that a BlackBerry mobile phone (or other smart phones) increases the productivity of someone who travels frequently, but where is the innovation in apps to increase the loyalty of business travellers and frequent flier members? There has been a phenomenal amount of focus on itinerary downloading and sharing tools, but for a business traveller, if it is tied to one airline it can’t compete with airline independent apps unless it contains something incredibly innovative.

The B2C leader in travel itineraries at the moment seems to be Tripit, and they have just launched a free app for the Blackberry. I couldn’t actually find it on their website as I think they are testing it before wider rollout. My invitation and link to download came via an email from the company. I tried it this week, but I think there must be a problem with the permissions on my phone. I gave it trusted program status when asked, but after 3 or 4 attempts I could never get it working, so I’ve given up. The error said it was related to trying to import Tripit events into my calendar, but I’m not sure how it could even try this as I had not yet logged in. I was curious to see what value added information (eg. the weather?) it might contain, but being a luddite who stills maintains a paper diary, just storing my flight and hotel details is of limited value when I’ve already got that same info in an itinerary email plus written in my diary.

I remember the funny story someone from an OTA told me once about how their company had an idea for a good new service for customers. They decided to send an email the day before the flight with a weather forecast for the destination city. Someone in the UK was flying to Milan, Italy in winter so the email said something like 30 degrees. The UK person who obviously wasn’t too wise about European geography assumed it was 30 degree Celsius, but it was really Fahrenheit. Needless to say that customer sent a pretty angry letter to the OTA when he turned up in Milan having packed mostly shorts and T-shirts!

Back to mobiles, with the number of people now having so called “smart phones,” surely there must be an opportunity for airlines to tap into this. Or is this a market where the natural owners are third parties? It is starting to look that way, but I’m still not convinced. One group making money out of mobile is hospitals, as more people are now having accidents whilst trying to multi-task!

Last year SITA were claiming poor numbers for airlines and mobile saying only 15% of airlines have optimised their Web sites for mobile phones, but I saw another survey showing airlines doing pretty well: Five out of the top ten airline companies scored top marks for their mobile Web performance

“In support of industry demand for mobile phone applications, SITA has demonstrated a mobile Web application it is trialling with Malaysia Airlines which could deliver mobile phone check-in and other functionality to Web-enabled smartphones.”

The above quote is quite old, so the trial period may well be over by now, but that is what happens when you half write a draft post only to revisit it for publication many months later. But all of the hype in the mobile space seems to be going to non airline applications, and this definitely hasn’t changed in the past six months. When I started writing this post I saw on the gigaom network a list of travel related apps for the iPhone. BlackBerry themselves were pushing five travel related apps. And I saw elsewhere a list of five more recommended travel apps for BlackBerries. But I am not seeing much from airlines themselves in this space.

This is definitely not a criticism at all. It may be a very smart decision on the part of airlines that because of the amount of venture capital money being spent in this area, it is smarter to sit back, watch someone else develop the apps, and then license some for a song when the VC cash dries up. Or maybe airlines have decided that strategically this is not the sphere to compete in, and mobile budgets should be spent on making the website easier for check in and rebooking of tickets via a smart phones. The other scenario is that some airlines are investing in stealth projects for more cutting edge stuff like taking advantage of the rumoured RFID capabilities in Apple’s new iPhone. If anyone knows of a really innovative mobile app from an airline (I mean branded by the airline, not necessarily developed in house) please let me know, but for now I’ll assume that most of the innovation in this space is happening elsewhere.