Airlines are scrambling to adapt to the ever-shifting effect of the coronavirus on their operations. Would-be travelers, already frustrated by having their plans upended, are all expecting the same level of speedy and efficient customer service. Chatbots and other intelligent digital tools are saving the day for a number of airlines during the pandemic.
A customer service crisis that has swept the aviation world reached a boiling point in the US in April, when the Department of Transportation recorded 25,000 complaints, a level 15 times above the norm. As COVID-19 spread around the globe, airlines were forced to cancel flights on a massive scale. Would-be travelers needed information and customer service on a level heretofore unseen.
“Right message, right person, right time” is a mantra APEX/IFSA CEO Dr. Joe Leader alluded to during the second installment of the IATA Aviation Data & Digital Webinar Series that has taken on a new degree of importance in light of the crisis. “Customer care and compassion are the antidotes to fear,” said Leader. He encourages airlines to implement “single pass” customer service so that customers are not left to tax the lines of communication via HUCA (hang up, call again) until their issue is resolved. Instead, they should be left with the assurance that an agent has received their message and will get back to them with a case-specific resolution.
Single pass solutions often require a certain level of digital automation. For Leader, this is the perfect time for airlines to consolidate their channels of communication and get serious about automation. He referenced a study commissioned by APEX and conducted by FETHR that revealed people felt most negatively about how difficult it is to find COVID-19 information, and demonstrated that communication, or lack thereof, is on almost everyone’s mind.
“Customer care and compassion are the antidotes to fear.”– Dr. Joe Leader, APEX/IFSA CEO
Earlier this year, FlightHub and JustFly made waves with their automated solution to the influx of customers seeking travel refunds. They created a hotline that could process the majority of requests without having to speak to an agent, at some points handling over 200 refunds per hour.
Leveraging automation will likely become a key trend. According to the COVID-19 Air Transport Near Term Impacts and Scenarios report, 60% of those working for airlines and airports expect investment in automation and the deployment of artificial intelligence technology to rise.
Some companies have been providing automated crisis messaging services to travel companies for many years and are now responding to distraught organizations looking to ditch manual ways of contacting travelers. 15below claims 20 years of experience in notifying travelers in times of crisis. Clients such as Ryanair used the platform to send an additional 2.1 million passenger notifications in the first 12 days of March to inform customers of changes to their trip, while British Airways recorded a 105% monthly increase in the number of e-mails sent to passengers in February. Lufthansa Group processed over one million PNRs [passenger name records] in one bulk-send using 15below to let travelers know of cancellations.
AirChat, an airport chatbot that uses AI and machine learning to deliver personalized messaging to travelers, is currently expanding its functionality based on the needs of those affected by mass flight disruptions. For instance, stranded travelers were now messaging the AirChat bot to request information about any flight that could get them home, which previously seldom happened since travelers typically have a specific flight booked as part of their itinerary. The bot became equipped to provide this info, as well as to deal with questions such as “Do I need a medical certificate to travel?” and “Do I need to self-isolate?”
AirAsia’s AVA and the team behind it were said to be handling ten times the normal number of queries: up to 500,000 per day in April.
Virtual assistants present something of a win-win for airlines by giving customers a quick way to seek support through a communication medium they are already invested in, such as instant messaging or social media, while driving down costs. Mindsay, which develops conversational AI, estimates that each telephone support call costs airlines $2.20, which can quickly balloon during a crisis. Mindsay customer Iberia incorporates the technology in its IBot chatbot available on its website and app, and through Facebook, WhatsApp, Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant. During the peak of the COVID-19 crisis, IBot on WhatsApp was handling 45,000 requests per day. It handled 450,000 messages in March, an amount 300% above February levels, and successfully resolved 72% of queries. IBot handled a further 250,000 messages on other platforms in March with an 88% success rate. The top queries IBot handled involved voucher requests, flight status inquiries and booking management.
Other airlines’ virtual assistants have been put to the test in the wake of COVID-19. AirAsia’s AVA and the team behind it were said to be handling ten times the normal number of queries: up to 500,000 per day in April. WestJet’s Juliet, the first Canadian airline chatbot, uses machine learning to improve its responses over time. After nearly two years of operation, its artificial intelligence faced the ultimate test during the first weeks of the COVID-19 outbreak in North America. It dealt with a 1,671% increase in support tickets coming through on Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp. Juliet was up to the task, resolving 87% of cases.
Virtual assistants are a key part of the passenger experience of the future. End-to-end digital integration aimed at smoothing out the travel process is something many airlines are eyeing for in the long-term. The lessons learned from the COVID-19 crisis will undoubtedly speed up the development of chatbots, machine learning and other technologies that will serve as the foundation of the future.