How Automation can Help Cool Heads at America’s Airports

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Between a 2017 “near riot” at Fort Lauderdale Airport over canceled flights, and a flight attendant being attacked mid-air on a Delta flight from Seattle to Beijing, the state of relations between airline and airport staff and their customers has never been rockier. Indeed, the situation has gotten so dire that the U.S. government is getting involved. Recently, the U.S. Government Accountability Office issued a report to Congress on the state of passenger assaults on airline customer service agents at airports, finding that 92 percent of agents were verbally harassed, while 44 percent received verbal threats.

Why is this happening, and what should airlines be doing to mitigate the risk to staff?

The report identified several factors, but there are two that really stood out — common practices such as same-day cancellations and surprise fees. Naturally, all airlines charge fees (some more than others) and all have unexpected flight cancellations. But airlines struggle to make sure passengers are informed about these in a timely manner, and the element of surprise can have hugely detrimental effects on customers, and by extent, on agents. Giving customers complete and timely information can go a long way toward managing their expectations and mitigating the risk of anger or assault.

Three ways automation can placate passengers and help keep agents safe

The dissemination of information to airline passengers is less straightforward than under normal circumstances: many passengers speak different languages, have limited roaming and data capabilities, and are tired and stressed. Because of this, it’s imperative that airlines build operations to systematically communicate with their passengers, regardless of the circumstances. Here are three ways automation can help airlines build and scale a robust system for real-time communication and assistance — without breaking the bank.

1. Automatically send information about policies and procedures

Certain actions that passengers complete can trigger relevant automated communication. Booking a flight can trigger an email with detailed policy reminders, or a push notification to a mobile device on the day of departure can provide a checklist with important details to keep in mind on the way to the airport. This communication should be sent in the passenger’s preferred language and communication channel (day-of-travel communication preferences can be requested during booking). Additionally, passengers should have readily available access to policies, procedures, and FAQs through a mobile-friendly and searchable knowledge base so that they can self-serve on the go.

2. Send timely push notifications about irregular operations and rebookings

Every airline experiences irregular operations. Preempt these occurrences by building bots that can keep passengers appraised of the situation. For instance, if there’s a delay, a bot can send a push notification and message to a mobile device to let passengers know and provide information about connecting flights, baggage, or gate details. Airlines can even offer auto-rebooking so that passengers don’t need to speak with an agent or deal with the hassle of printing out a new boarding pass — instead, a bot can deliver a mobile boarding pass for a new flight directly to the messaging channel of a passenger’s choice.

3. Offer immediately available automated support and escalation

There’s nothing worse for a passenger than getting bad news and not being able to get ahold of anyone to help. Airlines can provide travelers immediate access to assistance from directly within their apps through bot-based messaging for quick access to routine questions and rebooking — even in-flight on wifi-enabled aircraft. A recent Helpshift report found that twice as many customers this year are willing to interact with chatbots and that 60 percent of tickets can be fully handled through bot interactions. Common questions such as “Will I make my connection?” don’t actually need a human to supply an answer. Bots can also identify urgent or VIP requests and escalate them directly to a customer support agent. By leveraging messaging and automation, agents can focus their time on frequent fliers or complex issues while bots handle routine questions and automatic rebookings.

Hope for the best, prepare for the worst

A common mantra in the safety obsessed airline industry is ‘hope for the best, prepare for the worst.’ At the end of the day, there’s no excuse for passengers assaulting anyone, let alone customer service agents. However, it’s worth examining the root of travelers’ ire, and finding ways to proactively address potential conflict — not only for the safety of airline customer service agents and passengers, but also as a means to improve customer satisfaction, increase loyalty, and to build strong competitive advantage in the market.

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Published September 25, 2019
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