The Thanksgiving Holiday Travel Crush and AI

Airline Customer Service

What Smart and Creative Airlines are doing in customer service right now

Want quick service with travel woes? Tweet loudly. Airlines have made a conscious choice to prioritize needs of noisy complainers but setting up dedicated teams to respond to social support requests. The question is, can airlines scale this support effort to reach a broader customer base – especially during the Thanksgiving crush?  

Airlines are slammed during the holidays. Last year, over 54 million Americans traveled for Thanksgiving. People traveling by air grew by 5.4% to 4.27 million travelers1. While 2019 estimates are not out yet, it’s anticipated that this growth will continue. 

This holiday season, conversational AI in chat, email, and online channels may be the ticket.

Can Conversational AI Deliver A Two Minute Rebooking?

It’s past midnight. A weary passenger is stranded at Los Angeles International Airport. Instead of standing in a long line to talk to a human customer service agent, she sends the airline a DM on Twitter. She’s rebooked within two minutes. Say what?

Airline Customer Service
American Airlines rebooked a passenger within minutes.

This passenger story was included in a New York Times article which suggested to readers that in order to get a fast response from an airline, travelers should tweet or write a Facebook post. Forget the phone. Forget the lines at an airport service desk.

Between agonizing hold times to speak to a human agent (a friend of mine recently waited on hold for 6 hours to find lost luggage), endless phone trees and hours-long responses to an email, customer service for airlines is often incredibly frustrating for passengers. That is, unless it’s on social media. (Of course, there are still grievances about support on social media, but it’s the best option for customers today). The really good news is that Conversational AI can actually perform a similar task, without requiring any human interaction at all. Ask WestJet about how they do it. 

Airlines Are Mastering Social Support. Can They Extend That?

When it comes to customer service for airlines, immediacy tops everything for customers.

Whether it’s the procrastinator frantically trying to figure out if she can bring her skis with her on the flight five minutes before her Uber arrives to take her to the airport, or the frustrated passenger hopelessly stranded after she missed her connection, travelers need quick resolutions.

Southwest Listening Center
Southwest Listening Center

Perpetuated by the public shaming and battered brand reputation of customer service gripes that go viral, airlines have staffed up to monitor, flag and respond to customers on social media in real-time. For example, Southwest Airlines has it’s Listening Center and American Airlines’ has its Integrated Operations Center. These divisions were created with the purpose of bringing together hybrid teams of customer service and operations reps. These teams listen to what customers are saying, identify needs and resolve issues. Simple!

In fact, customer support teams now own the social media at 44% of global airlines. This is up from 26% one year ago, when more marketing teams owned social2.

Just as airlines are grasping how to deal with public shaming and complaints, customers are moving to private messages. Gartner predicts that requests for customer support through consumer messaging apps like Facebook Messenger and Twitter DM will exceed requests through public feeds3 .

The Holiday Airline Customer Service Playbook

There is no higher-stakes period of customer support for airlines than the infamous Thanksgiving Day travel rush. The busiest travel period of the entire year, any snafus during Thanksgiving Rush grab headlines. Nasty tweets and videos invariably go viral. 

To alleviate tension and resolve any issues that arise, the smartest airlines are turning to AI this holiday season. AI turns customer support into a real-time, synchronous conversation. It eliminates hold times. AI relieves some workload from stretched human agents.

Bringing AI into the customer service workforce enables customers to get instant answers to questions like how to check skis or car seats, immediately, as they come in. When airlines are deploying Conversational AI, these simple and repetitive customer questions will be diverted from the busy human agents’ queues. As customers grow more accustomed to AI-powered support, they start to appreciate the same immediacy they’ve given to social media to other channels – whether it’s AI voice, email, chat or 1:1 messaging.

Even more sophisticated airlines are using AI to proactively communicate to specific travelers. Examples include sending real-time alerts of security line wait times to travelers who have a flight coming up out of busy airports. Airlines can also deploy AI to automatically alert people about traffic delays around airports to ensure people leave themselves enough time. (For those traveling out of LAX around Thanksgiving, good luck)4. This proactive customer care powered by AI helps make the travel day smoother for passengers, and prevent issues from arriving (i.e., the need to rebook a missed flight).

Full-loop closure of automated messages about delays, cancellations

While airlines already are automating emails or texts when a flight is delayed. The smartest airlines take this one step further. They enable this automated message to become a two-way conversation. If a passenger asks a question like “Is it still departing out of the same gate” or “Is there another flight I can get on?” a Conversational AI  agent could answer these questions or escalate to a human agent when needed.

Make passengers thankful for quick resolutions

With the surge in customers, comes a surge in customer issues and needs. Call centers and customer support agents are slammed. 

The impact of bringing AI Into the workforce is huge. Human agents are more satisfied as AI eliminates mundane work, and customers are happier. In one example, WestJet  sees more than 50% of all inquiries handled by Juliet, the airline’s virtual assistant. The Canadian airline has also seen consumer engagement sky-rocket and customer satisfaction jump by 24%. 

Interested in learning more about how AI is the secret to four-star service and five star reviews in the travel industry? Download our ebook here.

 References 

  1. AAA: More than 54 Million Americans to Travel This Thanksgiving https://newsroom.aaa.com/tag/thanksgiving-travel-forecast/ 
  2. Airline Social Media Outlook Report https://app.box.com/s/05qb5rksjxey6ric56arkihipu6yui7a
  3. Conversocial: The Social Messaging Advantage  https://www.conversocial.com/hubfs/TheSocialMessagingAdvantage.pdf
  4. Travel & Leisure: Thanksgiving Travel By the Numbers https://www.travelandleisure.com/articles/thanksgiving-travel-numbers-statistics

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