The Future of Airline Chatbots

Natural language chatbots connected to backend systems have the power to transform the airline customer experience, reduce costs, and increase sales. Improved service and reduced costs might seem mutually exclusive for an airline but customer facing AI (artificial intelligence) and NDC (new distribution capability) are the keys to making it a reality.

Customer self-service
In 2018 airline passengers are still largely tethered to customer service agents at the airport or at a contact center. A natural language chatbot connected to the airline’s backend systems enables passengers to bypass the human bottleneck by chatting with the bot via their favorite mobile app or SMS.

Imagine instead of the scenes above and below simply speaking or typing into your bot equipped smartphone “can you rebook me on a later flight?” Once provided with the needed information it engages NDC to return some possibilities for the passenger to consider. If there are no flight options NDC enables hotel and car bookings too.

Irregular operations are going to happen. An intelligent chatbot connected to NDC can start to deflect customers away from overwhelmed customer service agents.

 

Conversation works both ways
Natural language chatbots can also start conversations. For example, during irregular operations the airlines’ reaccommodation system could engage with customers to confirm that a particular rebooking works for that customer.

This avoids the common situation in which passengers make expensive customer service calls to discuss alternatives to what the system has done.

Customer self-service is one application of a natural language chatbot. Another is…

Website Sales Augmentation
Even better than fixing a problem is avoiding it—and boosting revenue in the process. A conversation bot is ideally suited to help customers choose the right products while booking and to make clear what’s included. Smart conversations, right when they’re needed.

These unhappy passengers either didn’t read the fare rules or did but are not happy that the rules actually applied to them during their trip.

It’s easy to see how this can happen.

The website popup during booking (below) has important information about upgrade benefits but keeps our focus on the price instead of that information. Where do your eyes go? $305 and $385 right? Big, uncluttered numbers.

Some will read the fine print but on balance there is way too much study required to glean the benefits of the extra $80 per person.

This type of sales technique is made obsolete with intelligent chatbots that can converse with customers during booking. Conversation can gracefully nudge shoppers toward the upgrade based on benefits and real-time information relevant to each individual shopper.

For example, if legroom is important to me I could ask the chatbot how much extra legroom there is in Main Cabin. Ditto food options or IFE or whatever matters most to me.

If we add my name to the conversation then the bot and I will have a relevant and personalized conversation.

Chatbot: Dave, I see you’re booking two people in Basic Economy.
… Your seats will be assigned at the airport and that could mean you won’t be seated together.
… Would you like to upgrade to Main Cabin and reserve your seats right now?

Dave: Why can’t we sit together?

Chatbot: Passengers who have selected their seats in advance reduce or even eliminate the availability of adjacent seats at the airport.
… So you can get your seats now, more legroom, and priority boarding for an additional $80 per person.
… Would you like to get your seats now?

Much more informative and compelling than a popup isn’t it? If the shopper says yes the airline earns an extra $160 and the customer has a better travel experience. If no then it won’t come as a surprise if they bump into the Basic Economy rules while traveling.

A recent study determined that seats and bags are the most profitable upsells at booking. It seems clear that conversation injected into the sales process has the potential to dramatically improve the customer shopping experience and revenue. A true win, win scenario.

In addition, you’re probably familiar with A/B testing of web pages and pay-per-click ads. Similarly, machine learning can examine and improve the chatbot dialog to optimize conversion rates.

As airlines double down on the retailing model their success will correspond with the adoption of modern retailing and analytics methods.

Getting Started
The first decision is choosing where to start: website sales augmentation OR mobile self-service. Start with one then add the other later. While the underlying technology drives both, each has its own language and UI aspects.

By providing the AI and NDC integration, our cloud platform minimizes the implementation work required by airline tech teams. Most of the onboarding will center on working with the marketing team to synchronize the UI and conversation style with branding requirements.

Finally, conversation data is marketing gold. It equips airlines to learn personal preferences and travel patterns to deepen customer relationships. Not only when shopping for flights and traveling but for other communications too.  What AI learns can be sent to a CRM system to personalize marketing communications.

The evolution of AI-powered conversation fits perfectly with NDC and the airlines’ shift to merchandising model.

If you are an airline or travel industry innovation manager interested in adopting AI-powered conversation please schedule a call with us.

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