Age of flying bots – what airlines should do in 2016

Airlines will be one of the first sectors to push into messaging-driven experiences, as shown by KLM’s bot launched at Facebook’s F8 Conference last month.

NB: This is an analysis by Nadav Gur, founder and CEO of Servo.

This is driven by the opportunity to transform some of the most problematic use-cases in passenger-airline relationships.

Key drivers are the episodic nature of consumer-airline interaction; the abundance of context & push-driven use-cases; the cost and frustration of dealing with the call center during surge events (e.g. airport closure); and the opportunities around ancillary services.

Consumer adoption in this market will come fast as the infrastructure is in place and the experiences intuitive.

Therefore airlines should be studying this opportunity immediately, create a roadmap of desired use-cases and features and start pilots this year.

In doing so they need to remember that they are airlines, not startups — their messaging experiences need to be integrated with their existing customer touch-points (website, app & call-center).

Multiple messengers (e.g. SMS, Facebook Messenger) need to be supported. Platforms AND vendors need to be ones who can accommodate the use cases and the need for integration on both the technical and process levels.

2016: The dawn of the bot era

By now, messaging-as-a-platform is a well documented trend. A marketer-oriented review can be found here. This post examines it from the perspective of airlines.

Among the few bots on stage at Facebook’s F8 conference last month was KLM’s bot — for now a simple information retrieval bot developed by KLM with Facebook’s very direct assistance (i.e. coding).

Other players in the travel space are already deeply engaged as well — from Kayak and who announced upcoming messaging / bot based experiences, to Hyatt Hotels and others. Like KLM, airlines should have a particular incentive to build messaging-based passenger-facing experiences.

Now the experienced reader may be chuckling at this point.

“Oh yeah, we remember 2006–2008, when every year we were told at PhoCusWright/Travelcom/EyeForTravel that ‘this will be the year of mobile’, often by you, our honest correspondent.”

But the market didn’t come in truth until 2009–2010. How is this different?

Well, in mobile, we had to wait until smartphones got in the hands of at least an early majority of customers to actually realize the gains.

A hardware replacement cycle takes years. In this case, all the necessary software is already in consumers hands – and the volume of activity is incredible. Virtually all your customers have SMS, and most of them are already on Facebook Messenger or Whatsapp etc.

They are waiting for the airlines to come up with services, not for the underlying infrastructure.

Key airline use-cases or why airlines have a lot to gain

Globally, airlines spend hundreds of millions if not more on their post-booking touch-points with passengers — and still their customers are often frustrated.

The business of flying is fraught with unexpected circumstances — delays, cancellations, schedule and gate changes. Passengers themselves are fickle. They change their return flights at the last second. They don’t make decisions about ancillary services and upgrades until the very last second.

All of these create the need to be in touch with them post-booking, in and outside of the airport.

And while mobile apps created a huge stride forward in this space, they cannot account for all of the use-cases for several reasons, the chief one being simply the fact that many, soon most passengers don’t use them.

“App Fatigue” is a term describing the public’s lessening interest in downloading and using apps, especially ones that are not in everyday use.

Simply put, many consumers are loath do download apps that will be used rarely, or download an app “just for the next few days”. On top of that, airline passengers are often roaming internationally and turn off data to avoid hefty charges.

As Forrester reminds us: your customer will not download your app.

At the same time, some of these travel events represent a perfect opportunity for mobile interaction — as the alternative is calling an airline’s call-center, navigating an IVR and then waiting in line to be served. When the event is, for instance, a wide weather disruption to multiple flights / airports, we’re talking about a surge of potentially dozens of thousands of calls.

This is a case where:

  • A passenger, already frustrated by flight disruption is further frustrated by long call times
  • The (already high ) cost of servicing callers is exacerbated by surge costs
  • The arbitrary order of calls coming in means passengers cannot be optimally assigned to open seats

This “re-accommodation” use-case is maybe the extreme example for an airline use-case where a bot that alerts the passenger, allows her to review a few options and commit to an alternative solves a big problem.

Such a bot will be so effective because:

  • Clear integration point: It starts with a familiar, existing experience / integration point — airlines already push their passengers flight alerts
  • Full context: The passenger’s context and goals are clear… she was just stranded and needs to get to her destination ASAP
  • Captive audience: Responding to this message is the quickest path to resolution — and the passenger knows it

This “captive audience / clear context” situation is very common with airline use-cases. Consider for instance: ancillary service up-sell a couple of hours before a flight; assistance in getting a passenger who’s just landed to her connecting flight or to the lounge; upgrades and seating requests; etc.

In all these cases there is much knowledge of the context and a limited enough set of requests possible that make the messenger alongside simple enough UI and a minimal amount of natural-language-interaction a perfect way to quickly and cheaply serve the passenger.

Wait, it’s still not that simple

An airline is not a start-up. These messaging experiences need to tie in with the overall fabric of the airline’s consumer touch-points. The website, app and call-center are still the key touch-points and will remain so for awhile.

A customer may start interaction with a bot but need to be handed off to the call center because they have a special, un-handled need. Or they may want to complete the transaction on the app in case they do have it installed.

Some of the use-cases alleged above require integrating with multiple back-end systems, from the GDS through CRM to the loyalty management system. A messenger’s UI is even more compact than an app — new logic (or indeed decision support driven by artificial intelligence) may be needed to optimize the suggestions recommended to the user.

Subject-matter expertise is needed to design and deliver these experiences. Most of the recently announced “platforms” in the messaging-bot space are focused on simple templates, mostly for content delivery.

This may be good enough for answering support questions like “where is the lounge”, but not for re-booking passengers or purchasing ancillary. Airlines will need to engage with service providers who have expertise on both sides of the fence — the travel use-case as well as bot & messenger interfaces.

The platform conundrum

So — is Facebook Messenger the one platform to rule them all? Is it Whatsapp? Or should we start simple with SMS?

The “messenger wars” are not over. Facebook’s acquisition of Whatsapp and its growth investment in Messenger make it the 400-lb gorilla in the space.

But this is a software-only play and already many consumers are using multiple messengers for different uses (e.g. SMS for family, Whatsapp for foreign friends and group chat and Messenger for “all the rest”).

Google and Apple may push their own group messengers as part of their OS platforms, potentially disrupting Facebook’s dominance.

What won’t change however are the facts that SMS reaches all your mobile customers, and that it is often the only channel available during international roaming. Therefore creating basic experiences on SMS is a no-brainer.

At the same time given the prevalence and more advanced UI of Facebook Messenger, as well as the tie-in with marketing opportunities (there is little difference between getting a consumer to ‘Like’ your business page and connecting with her on Messenger), Facebook Messenger is probably the right second choice at least for domestic US carriers.

The best strategy, however, is to use a messaging platform that supports multiple messengers — both the different APIs as well as the different interaction capabilities, making your investment future-proof.


The case for bots in airline-passenger interaction is extremely compelling. KLM’s early-mover position will necessarily be followed by many (eventually — all) other meaningful airlines.

Just like apps 7 years ago, this will start with simple information services, but will be followed by actual transactional capabilities, where there are service-improvement,cost-saving and revenue-generation opportunities.

Despite some of the cynicism around the bot trend lately (see below) — these use cases are here to stay. Airlines are advised to team up with partners who understand their needs; the customers; and the technology.

NB: This is an analysis by Nadav Gur, founder and CEO of Servo.

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About the Writer :: Viewpoints

A founding principle of tnooz was a diversity of viewpoints from across the spectrum. Viewpoints are articles by guest contributors from around the travel and hospitality industries. The views expressed are those of the author. and do not necessarily reflect those of the author's employer, or tnooz and its partners.



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  1. Timothy O'Neil-Dunne

    A good thought piece.
    Airlines are not the best market for this type of application – NOT because the customer could not present a great use case, but sadly they are just not that great in understanding their customers. Literally you are well abstracted from your customer base in electronic commerce. Airlines have an inbuilt attitude to not wanted to reach out to their user base. I think many people have been on FB and seen the cute doggie working for KLM and retrieving a lost cell phone. We know its BS. They know we know its BS. Just spend a few hours at Schiphol. However KLM despite its challenges is willing to try a lot of things. For a stuffy old airline that’s not bad. sadly the perception and the reality are someone far apart.
    What we have to appreciate about the practical application of this form of communication based technology is how well it does or doesn’t service the needs of the customer. (duh!). There are some good applications that have been around for a while. Next-IT has one with Alex (United) and Jenn (AlaskaAir). These are realistic and useful services. But usage is not that great. However until now, no one has done a good job in creating a TRUSTED seamless experience between the communication device (be it smartphone or whatever) and the systems at the back WITH humans. DeltaAssist (sadly no longer separated) did a great job of bringing technology to a vast sprawling problem that has massive scale and quickly gets out of hand. But Delta has not yet been able to leverage the service to extend problem resolution to key places because we dont have trust in the technology enough yet.
    I am hopeful that the specific application of message based system actually do work and bring value. But dont hold your breath until we really start to address some of the baser problems. The core of the legacy designs that the airline industry seems so wont to leave really cannot be made to function effectively in an advanced natural language based application environment.



    • Mike Slone

      I agree with most of what Timothy is saying. One thing to point out is that most airlines are already equipped with the human touch in the form of travel agents and customer service representatives, they just don’t have the system in place to easily connect them to travelers throughout the Customer journey. As popular as mobile devices are to the travel experience, it only makes sense for airlines to create systems to allow their existing agents to help Customers through synchronized messaging and/or communication tools. Airlines need to replace the phones with messenging apps and systems that allow for easy and quick communication with customers through all phases of travel. Customers shouldn’t have to pick up the phone or hunt for a phone number to communicate with an airline, it should simply be one click away via their mobile device and the Customer should be able to choose how to communicate and on their time.


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