Credit Unions

Wings Financial Credit Union Charts Early Tech Adoption Course

Airline industry professionals are perhaps the ultimate mobile customer: In the latest Credit Union Tracker™, Wings Financial Credit Union VPs Mike Sahr and Grant Walker tell PYMNTS how their credit union has tailored an entire set of mobile solutions that meet their needs on the ground and at 37k feet.

One of the biggest hassles for many customers is trying to work around a financial institution’s (FI’s) hours.

That’s especially challenging for those who work outside the 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. realm — a hurdle many FIs are now working to address. Few understand this better than credit unions (CUs) serving the needs of members employed in the aviation industry.

Often on-the-go and working odd hours, airline employees aren’t like other customers. To add to the complications, their frequent international travel can set off potential fraud alerts. Account activity in a new country could indicate that bad actors have gained access, or it might simply be a side effect of their workstyles. Given these challenges, successfully attending to pilots, flight attendants and other aviation employees’ specific needs can help CUs stand out.

It can also be risky for the FI, though. Any institution that focuses on membership from one industry or employer runs the danger of putting all its eggs in one basket. If the industry experiences a downturn, that credit union can find itself on turbulent financial footing.

PYMNTS recently spoke to a pair of executives from Wings Financial Credit Union to gain a better understanding of the challenges involved in addressing aviation-oriented members’ needs. Mike Sahr, vice president of payment services, and Grant Walker, vice president of business development, discussed how the CU has navigated the sometimes stormy skies of serving aviation employees, and how its approach has evolved since its founding.

How Frequent Flights Made a Tech-Forward FI

Wings Financial launched in 1938 to serve employees of Northwest Airlines, was later acquired by Delta and has always focused on innovating for its highly nomadic members.

The credit union’s early innovation strategy largely centered on over-the-phone banking to provide members with remote services. It has stepped up its investment in online and mobile banking offerings over the years, seeking to bring new features like suspicious transaction and customized alerts, feature shut off when a member doesn’t plan to use it and, of course, the ability to quickly mark travel details in its app.

According to Sahr, embracing technology has been one of the CU’s guiding principles.

“We try to adopt everything as early as we can,” he said, noting the FI was quick to accept Apple Pay, Samsung Pay and Android Pay. While a small portion of total transactions occur with the mobile wallets, enrollment in the services appears to be growing.

In another tech-friendly effort, Wings Financial also launched an Amazon Alexa voice skill that enabled it to test both the space and level of demand. Members seem interested in text alerts about suspicious transactions, making payments through social media platforms and using geolocation on phones and cards, Sahr said — all to help confirm the correct person is accessing the account.

Keeping ahead of the curve, or at least among the early adopters, has meant switching from white label products to developing customized solutions in-house using partners’ application program interfaces (APIs) and software development kits (SDKs). The FI must make careful choices about which technologies will offer the most utility, and thus are worth pursuing.

Despite the push for new innovations, Wings Financial adheres to more traditional solutions in at least one area: With a membership that frequently changes countries, it needed payment cards that would be accepted nearly anywhere. Achieving that has meant relying on a major card brand.

“Visa [cards] are accepted around the world,” Sahr said. “That really provides a vehicle for payments to be processed anywhere and accepted anywhere.”

Around-the-Clock Financial Lives

With aviation-focused members taking off at all times of the day and night for all kinds of locations, the CU cannot rely on the standard 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. schedule, Walker noted. In some cases, meeting members where they are means having staff available at odd hours and in cities with large aviation communities. In other cases, it means providing robust online resources that are available whenever the member has the time.

“Within certain major cities where we have a large population of those aviation employees … if you start at 11 o’clock, guess what? Wings is right there with you at 11 [o’clock],” Walker said. “We understand that their lives are totally different from [that of] your regular member, so we make ourselves available and try to come up with products and services that they can utilize whenever they want.”

To that end, the CU offers a menu of online financial education modules to support members without them having to call a branch to ask about topics such as home buying, he added.

Weathering Aviation Industry Challenges

Over the years, Wings Financial realized that serving employees of a single company was proving to be too limited. The aviation industry faced widespread bankruptcies and tumult in the aftermath of 9/11, and it became clear the CU could not be tied to just one airline and stay in business.

As a result, it officially changed its charter in 2003 to serve employees of any airline nationwide, and more recently branched out to also include non-aviation members living in certain metro areas. The expanded member base lends the FI greater security, though aviation employees remain at the heart of its focus and operations.

After decades in business, Wings Financial continues to offer services tailored to the specific needs of tech-loving, on-the-go and often in-the-sky members who work unusual hours. Doing so also means keeping an eye peeled for the next technologies that might take off.



The pressure on banks to modernize their payments capabilities to support initiatives such as ISO 20022 and instant/real time payments has been exacerbated by the emergence of COVID-19 and the compelling need to quickly scale operations due to the rapid growth of contactless payments, and subsequent increase in digitization. Given this new normal, the need for agility and optimization across the payments processing value chain is imperative.