Perfecting Airline Customer Service On The Fly, Without Winging It

Hemal Shah

Sr VP & Global Head - Travel Solutions & Strategy

In our rapidly spinning world, airlines need to pivot fast to keep customers happy. Whether confronting a sudden overload of refund requests after travel disruptions or a subsequent spike in re-bookings, airlines that don’t adapt to changing circumstances in real time, every time, risk losing customer confidence and future revenue.

The good news? While it’s impossible to predict all flight disruptions well in advance, it’s not impossible to prepare right now for their customer service impact. Far from it. Here are a couple of systematic digital measures airlines can take this moment to stay nimble throughout even the most turbulent times:

Ramp up robotics and automation to fast-track credits and refunds

With regional travel restrictions remaining fluid and major weather events growing more frequent and intense, airline call centers are feeling the crunch. So are customers, who sometimes endure long waits before getting an agent on the line. Airlines can ease customer service congestion in these and other circumstances by doubling down on robotics and automation. Indeed, 60 percent of airline industry players are already boosting investment in automation, with nearly just as many increasing spending on customer experience and service.[1]

Perfecting Airline Customer Service on the Fly, Without Winging It

One smart way an airline can maximize these investments is by creating an automated self-service form on its website, powered by robotics.  This allows customers to spend just minutes requesting a refund or credit rather than waiting to speak with a live agent.

Here’s how it works: Customers enter their ticket number, PNR, date of travel and other vital information. The automated system rapidly verifies the customer’s information, generates a message confirming receipt of the request and then gives the customer an ETA for speedy resolution.

Once the system tallies the customer’s request with those from other passengers, it quickly calculates the total dollar amount of requested refunds/credits for a given flight, day, week, etc., to help the airline gauge the larger impact of any passenger-compensation decisions it might make. If an airline decides to issue credits or refunds for a disrupted flight, it can swiftly integrate the customer requests with the airline’s credit and refund systems, ensuring that the correct amounts are issued.

Perfecting Airline Customer Service on the Fly, Without Winging It

While this solution proves especially helpful when sudden, undesirable events result in high customer service volumes, the value continues year-round. That’s because well-designed robotics-driven automation makes every customer service transaction more efficient. More efficiency translates into better experiences for customers, lower cost per transaction and greater availability of customer service agents to handle tasks falling outside automation (e.g., authenticating a doctor’s certificate submitted with a refund request). It’s no wonder then that almost half of global airlines are seeking technology partners to help develop robotic solutions.[2] To remain competitive, other airlines will want to follow suit.

Use inflight chat to resolve flight connection problems before passengers land

Imagine that you’re flying from Helsinki to Heathrow to connect to JFK and your flight is delayed. By the time the plane takes off, you’re running two hours late; it’s clear you’ll miss your connecting flight. Since you can’t call customer service while airborne, you’ll have to wait until you arrive at Heathrow to reschedule a connecting flight, possibly finding yourself at the end of a long line as you wonder where you’ll sleep that night.

Perfecting Airline Customer Service on the Fly, Without Winging It

Or maybe not. If your plane offers inflight chat with a live agent on the ground, you’re in luck — that is, if the airline has integrated its inflight chat function with the various systems needed to resolve your issue before you land. And not just your issue, but also the issues of your equally delayed fellow passengers.

An airline with a well-integrated inflight chat function readily accesses interline partner systems to find alternative connecting flights for stranded passengers. An optimally designed inflight chat function also robotically pulls from the airline’s operating, reservation and loyalty program systems. It can quickly determine which passengers merit certain types of compensation (e.g., snack voucher for a four-hour delay, hotel voucher, flight credit/refund, etc.) and send that directly via mobile app. A robust inflight chat function also determines who gets rebooking prioritization based on passenger hierarchy, ranging from high-priority medevac to basic economy fliers.


Perfecting Airline Customer Service on the Fly, Without Winging It

Not only do these automated determinations help move passengers to their desired destinations as efficiently as possible, but they also save airlines time and money. Solving flight disruptions robotically before a passenger lands — rather than manually addressing such problems at the airport hours later — can save an airline up to 10% of cost while improving customer experience and effectively follow processes in managing disruptions.

As you explore these and other digital solutions for keeping your airline’s customer service nimble during unpredictable times, it’s helpful to bear the following points in mind:

  • Move at a speed you can handle: Prototype key digital solutions for select flights and airports, giving yourself enough time to test and refine before scaling up, while also letting yourself fail fast as you iterate your way to success.

  • Integrate complementary technologies: Your digital solutions are only as good as their component technologies and how well they communicate with each other. Make sure you integrate new technologies with current ones via proprietary platforms and enterprise-wide process engineering.

  • Embed analytics: Integrate analytics throughout your digital solutions to obtain predictive insights that will help you anticipate and navigate volatility in customer service demand.

  • Work with the right partner: Find a solution provider who understands the airline industry. The ideal partner will have the ability not only to install the necessary technology, but also to design and consistently apply the best processes for running it.

Perfecting Airline Customer Service on the Fly, Without Winging It

To learn more about how digital transformation can help you meet today’s travelers at tomorrow’s destination, let us hear from you. We’d love to talk

1. Digital Transformation, Automation and CX Among Investment Priorities for Airlines and Airports amid COVID-19 Disruption, Future Travel Experience, May 2020
2. Air Transport IT Insights 2020, SITA, Feb 2021