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Booking websites automate much of the travel planning process – some are even able to predict price fluctuations or respond to personal travel preferences. But even the most advanced digital booking services couldn’t predict the coronavirus outbreak. Two sister websites reacted quickly to create an automated system that allows for 8o% of flight refund requests to be handled automatically over the phone, without involving a customer service agent.

Booking a flight online has never been easier, or more popular. In 2018, 82% of travel bookings were completed via a website or mobile app, without the help of a human agent. Websites like FlightHub and JustFly, both part of FlightHub Group, are ever-ready to help travelers navigate various offerings, book a flight with confidence and request a refund with convenience.

Travelers who booked flights to Asia months in advance are bracing themselves for a potentially long and inconvenient phone call, after the coronavirus caused numerous airlines to cancel their flights to China due to drops in demand.

5,000 refunds were instantaneously processed – no verbal communication required.

FlightHub and JustFly customers attempting to change their travel plans in the wake of COVID-19 can do away with such concerns. The companies assembled a team of developers tasked with automating a special hotline to quickly respond to cancellation, rescheduling and refund requests. William Syms, director of Service Tech and Roman Munjiu, director, Fulfillment and Automation at FlightHub, explained that developers worked well into the night creating a matrix table which includes all possible combinations of reservation attributes that are eligible for a refund due to the coronavirus, as guided by respective airline policies. The system allows for 8o% of refund requests to be handled automatically, while 20% of cases require the involvement of the companies’ support teams.

It was a big operation. “One of the biggest challenges was to create a flow such that we can automate any kind of travel advisory through a standardized format,” said Syms and Munjiu. The system has proven successful. As of February 11, 5,000 refunds had been instantaneously processed – no verbal communication required. Less wait time led to increased customer satisfaction. At some points, over 200 refunds were processed per hour.

FlightHub and JustFly COO Chris Cave highlighted the importance of responsiveness in times of crisis. “Watching the team respond to the coronavirus crisis in such an agile manner, all I could think was this is FlightHub and JustFly at their best,” he said.

Naturally, delegating more tasks to machines would bring responsiveness lag to near-zero. Did this experience encourage the companies to integrate more automation in customer service? Syms and Munjiu stressed the importance of finding the right balance between humans and machines working hand-in-hand. “Although we often tend to try to automate everything we can as much as possible, we do believe that human customer service agents will always be required,” they said.

For 5,000 customers and counting, this automated solution was the right call.