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  • Writer's pictureAsif Chowdhury

How AI can transform poor customer service for airlines of the future

The global airline industry is growing at a lighting pace with nearly 8.2 billion passengers expected to fly around the world by 2037. As the world of aviation witnesses an unprecedented digital transformation, managing expectation of digital savvy customers have never been trickier before. Here’s how airline marketing professionals can leverage artificial intelligence and address strategic challenges in a customer’s air travel journey.

Photo Credit: Techopedia

In 2018, the airline industry managed some 4.4 billion passengers around the world. According to IATA, this number is going to reach 8.2 billion by 2037. However, most passengers are increasingly facing poor customer service both on the ground and in flight. Painful booking procedures, missing out on the best flight deals (even though there are hundreds of apps that do the sorting) and not knowing about potential delays are some of the most common issues with air travel today. Furthermore, customers often complain the inflight infotainment system merely does its job. But as we step into the fourth industrial revolution –Artificial Intelligence, air travel could soon become the most rewarding experience, even for economy class travelers.

Now, as marketers, finding a magic formula for sailing through the cloud can be complicated. With customers being the real captains of airline businesses, it’s hard to predict the opportunities and pitfalls. So, I decided to take a step back and do a bit of empirical research to understand why they behave the way they behave. The findings are quite remarkable.

Dissatisfaction tends to be a vicious cycle

In air travel, resentment can become long-term and often seem like a never-ending phenomenon unless a well-devised service recovery strategy is in place. Makiti, Lombard, and Mpinganjira in 2019 conducted a study that identified that the perception that leads to a service failure impacts future behavioral intention. Customers are also likely to remain dissatisfied if they realize that their favored airline didn’t take adequate measures to solve a problem in the first instance. No doubt, we see so many travelers continue to complain even if it is about their favorite airline.

Communication is a key driver

While on my little quest for aviation knowhow, I came across an interesting article published by Birce Dobrucali and Bengu Oflac in 2019. In their research, they have identified that both Low-Cost Carriers and Flagship Carrier’s reputation is influenced by the Word of Mouth (WOM). Particularly for flagship carriers, positive WOM is driven by how effectively information is communicated to its customers. WOM furthermore sets the extent to which an airline can resist negative brand information that is mostly channeled through social media. ‘Tweetverse’ as Forbes senior contributor Dan Reed calls it, saw 96,000 tweets about the top 9 US-based airlines in two weeks in August 2019 in a study conducted by InsureMyTrip! The study that was conducted by using artificial intelligence to detect the emotional tone of tweets identified 48.5% of the posts about these airlines were negative. Thanks to Fung So et al. we now know, customers tendency to focus on negative brand information is perhaps more dependent on the individual’s expectation management than the brand the individual identifies with.

Airport services play a vital role in airline customer satisfaction

This one is straight forward, but often we don’t think through. Those who have traveled to Singapore’s Changi and Turkey’s Atatürk Airport would surely know the difference between rewarding vs. stressful experience. Thankfully there’s a new airport in Istanbul now! Easy self-check ins, the ambiance, communication by airlines all add up to the overall airline experience. While these attributing factors lead to dissatisfaction of journey by flight, in most of the cases they are not instantly realized. Explains why most of the times we aren’t fully satisfied even when the airline delivers a flawless flight experience!

How AI can transform poor customer service

One way for sure is looking at AI to make a customer’s air travel experience more rewarding. Following are some of the benefits both full service and low-cost carriers can harness from AI.

Leverage the power of conversational AI

The likes of Alexa and Google Home are currently dominating the market. What we only dreamt a decade ago about voice assistance is now a reality. And surely, it has more to offer. As we are transforming from a mechanical economy to a thinking economy, AI-powered voice assistants will evolve in data analytics, information processing, and decision making. This provides ample opportunity for airline marketers to promote their packages.

Here’s a scenario – Let’s say, Alex, a Canadian economy class traveler, is planning for a trip from Toronto to Singapore.

He asks his voice assistant:

“What are the flight options for traveling from Toronto to Singapore next Monday evening?”

Voice Assistant pulls the data and responds:

“You have 4 flight options on Monday evening from Toronto Pearson Airport to Singapore Changi Airport. Prices are starting from CAD…”

This much we’d already expected. But here’s the cherry on the cake. The Voice Assistant further goes on to mention:

“The information was brought to you by FutureJet Airlines. You may want to check out their deals.”

What exactly happened? Alex gets all flight information, but FutureJet makes it to his Top of Mind.

Reduce advertising gimmick through mixed reality

Researchers like Y. Wang stated almost two decades ago that there’s a significant discrepancy in what ads show and what airlines offer. A semi-reclined position, a luxurious ambiance, picturesque view through the window, and catchy background score, none of it depicts the real inflight experience. Yet this continues to be the traditional normal in airline marketing. Mixed Reality (MR) could challenge this ‘normal’ and set new standards. MR could help marketers promote a near-real inflight experience to its potential audience.

Going back to our guy Alex, he now has 4 flight options after the voice search and figures out all the airliners are offering similar deals. He knows it’s a long travel so inflight factors are essential. He puts on his mixed reality device and asks his Voice Assistant:

“Take me inside FutureJet’s Toronto to Singapore economy class.” He instantly sees everything at actual dimension, the ambiance, the aisle space, seating arrangement, the pack of amenities, food menu, infotainment system, etc.

What happens here? Alex is associating himself with the brand even before experiencing it.

An MR tech like this will also foster the partnership between airlines and travel agents to offer greater exposure and experience to the brand. Think of going to a travel agency and experiencing one airline with mixed reality vs. reading about the other. Which one would you likely go with?

Earlier in this article, we discussed that customers remain dissatisfied unless their doubts are solved in the first instance. This is where mixed reality could become a potential game-changer in delivering a brand promise across the service spectrum.

Chatbots are no longer the future, but virtual customer service reps are

If you are a millennial, the chances are that you are one of three to have interacted with a chatbot. According to Business Insider, by 2020, over 80% of businesses are expected to have chatbot automation implemented. As it is soon to become the new normal, the excitement around chatbots is likely to fade. But what’s evolving is the concept of virtual characters. The recent introduction of Xinhua’s AI-driven virtual news presenter has shown new avenues for virtual characters to provide uninterrupted services.

Having AI-powered service reps could bring the services 24/7 to the customers and alienate an airline’s association with poor customer service. This provides the opportunity for airlines to humanize the virtual interactions, although some argue that AI-powered avatars are at a primary stage of its evolution and mostly found to have been stuck in a state of “uncanny valley”. For airline marketers, this is a strong entry point with low risk as these virtual reps can promote the exact message, period to period, without any distortion.

Personalize by using data and proximity beacons at airports

How about knowing what your potential customers or passengers expect from an air travel journey? Well, this isn’t the future anymore. By leveraging data and analytics, we now have the opportunity to know what our target audiences prefer. But how about stepping up a little further by displaying the ads and flight information as they pass by your display boards? With proximity beacons, airlines can place smart displays around airports and show personalized content for each passing traveler. Proximity beacons could also create the opportunity to promote relevant and desired in-flight ancillary services at the self-check-in counters. While the concept of the Internet of Things broadly drives the overall operational strategy of air travel, individual touchpoints of the journey have needs that are specific to marketing communications.

Back to Alex. On the day of his flight, he arrives at Toronto Pearson and enters the self-check-in area. With a touch of a button, the kiosk reads –

"Hi Alex, thanks for choosing FutureJet airlines. Before we proceed with check-in, we’d suggest you check out our personalized offers"

Alex taps the enter button, and the kiosk displays options for upsizing his meals with side dishes for a few dollars more. The system learned it by analyzing his data on his meal purchase patterns.

I’d be sold to this. Would you?

So, what about conventional marketing practices?

Any global shift evolves with time, and an airline’s adaptability to the changing needs varies with its capacity. While airline categorized as Tier 1 and Tier 2 based on financial strength by Frost & Sullivan’s customer research survey, such as Qantas, Emirates, Cathay, etc. are ready for a digital transformation, the Tier 3 and 4 airlines are yet to embark on the journey. Therefore, conventional marketing practices are here to stay for some time. However, eventually to keep up with digital-savvy customers, airlines will require focusing on personalizing their marketing strategies. In the recent study of Amadeus, more than half of all airline executives surveyed expect that the evolution to personalized approach will increase passenger revenue by 15 percent or more.

Could over-dependency on AI threaten human-centered jobs in the airline industry?

A few months ago, I came across this interesting academic journal on the ‘Feeling Economy’ that talks about the next generation of AI, penned by Huang, Rust, and Muksimovic. They identified that while we are transforming from a mechanical economy to a thinking economy, we’d ultimately head towards a feeling economy – an economy in which the total employment and wages attributable to feeling tasks exceed the overall employment and wages attributable to thinking or mechanical tasks. In other words, jobs that require empathy will become more critical as AI will do the thinking, and human will emphasis on reacting according to real emotional needs. Therefore, human-centered jobs are here to stay while jobs requiring computing skills would decline as airlines continue to leverage more data driven by AI. However, that’s something to worry about post-2030s. At least that’s what research tells us.

The article was first published on MarTech advisor


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