It was only a few years ago when almost all customer-facing industries, airlines included, began searching for ways to capitalize on the burgeoning chatbot trend.
Like other new technologies, though, chatbots have followed a hype cycle trajectory: initially sky-high expectations, followed by a sudden realization of how challenging they are to integrate. Gartner calls this the “trough of disillusionment.” Today, airlines are finally homing in on specific, real-world use cases for chatbots that improve the passenger experience and overall profitability.
In 2018, SITA predicted that 68% of airlines will be using chatbots in some form by the end of 2020. The crush of airline customer service needs throughout COVID-19 may make that prediction reality. As APEX notes in a report about the pandemic’s impact on airlines, “60% of those working for airlines and airports expect investment in automation and the deployment of artificial intelligence technology to rise.”
Some airlines are finding success in taking chatbot applications beyond run-of-the-mill customer service interactions and automated check-ins. More specific use cases are emerging that are driving concrete business results for both small and large carriers.
From baggage handling to delivering tailored inflight entertainment, here are some of the ways that airlines are taking chatbots from conceptual to the concrete.
Reducing Baggage-Handling Pain Points
In a recent survey by Priority Pass, roughly half of all travelers identified baggage handling and claiming as the most stressful part of their voyage. Airlines are striving to reduce baggage-associated pain points with unique chatbot applications.
Aeroméxico and Canada’s WestJet are two brands now using chatbots to streamline how passengers handle and track baggage.
Last year, WestJet launched Juliet, the first AI-enabled chatbot launched by a Canadian airline. Juliet handles most of the usual flyer inquiries, like itinerary management and mobile check-in. But Juliet also comes equipped with a baggage calculator that tells passengers whether their bags can be carried on or should be checked.
While WestJet’s chatbot helps passengers with pre-boarding, Aeroméxico’s Aerobot assists with locating and tracking baggage. Aeroméxico is the first airline to integrate SITA’s WorldTracer baggage tracing system, allowing customers to find out the exact location and current status of their baggage by simply conversing with Aerobot through WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger. Its purpose is to reunite passengers with their bags in the quickest, most stress-free way possible, but in the event of lost luggage, Aerobot can calm passengers’ nerves by providing accurate information as to where their belongings are.
Addressing Passengers’ COVID-19 Concerns
Airlines’ COVID-19 measures are an excellent target for automation, as United Airlines proves with its United Automated Assistant (UAA) chatbot. The primary focus of the chatbot is to provide accurate, in-depth information about cleanliness and health-related to COVID-19. UAA works primarily via text message. Users can ask about what United is doing to improve onboard air quality, how it is disinfecting aircraft, and which United Clubs are open. Passengers can also ask questions of their own, like “Do I need a mask onboard?” or “What’s your social distancing policy?”
This illustrates how one brand took chatbot technology and repurposed it to meet the needs of an unexpected crisis.
Tapping Into the Chinese Market
China’s consumer marketplace is a tough nut to crack for many industries, and airlines are no exception. Language and cultural barriers still persist when it comes to maximizing the revenue-per-passenger of many Chinese tourists and travelers.
Finnair had a slightly unique challenge: making post-sale ancillaries available to Chinese customers who made purchases through an indirect retailer.
The popularity of indirect retailers prevented Finnair from accessing the data and marketing channels it needed to be able to effectively push ancillary offers to its Chinese passengers. It was an important issue to solve since Nordic countries saw an 82% increase of Chinese travelers prior to COVID-19. So the airline created a social plug-in, available on popular Chinese app WeChat, that permitted passengers to modify their flights in locally relevant channels. Because many Chinese consumers manage multiple areas of their lives—from payments to banking to travel—through WeChat, Finnair’s automated line of communication on that app opens the airline up to new upsell and cross-sell opportunities.
Clearly, chatbots have finally made it out of the trough of despair, and are moving toward sustainable, intelligent usage in our increasingly online world. In the post-COVID recovery era, passengers will continue to expect virtual assistants to help with a variety of inquiries such as flight status and airport check-in. Brands like Aeroméxico, United Airlines, and Finnair are applying chatbots strategically to solve core business problems.