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“Hey Alexa, book me a flight and check me in” – Said No One, Ever: But United and Other’s Think You Will

“Hey Alexa, book me a flight and check me in” – Said No One, Ever: But United and Other’s Think You Will

"Hey, Alexa, Book Me a Flight, Choose My Seat and Check Me In" - Said No One, Ever: But United and Other's Think They Will

Airlines have been slowly automating their business for some time now – we’ve had self-check in kiosks at the airport for years and more and more airline’s now offer automated bag drop desks as well. Some airports are also rolling out automated boarding gates.

With many passengers booking their tickets and checking in for their flights via the airline website or mobile app it’s entirely possible that you might not have any interaction with a member of airline staff until you get onboard the plane.

Even after a cancellation or long delay, you might find it easier to rebook and claim compensation via the airline website or app (rather than queueing for hours to speak with a member of staff). So it’s probably no surprise that airlines are now turning to the latest automation and artificial intelligence (AI) applications – the most popular of which, Amazon’s Alexa service.

“Alexa, ask United to check me in,” is what United Airlines wants its passengers to start saying as it becomes the first U.S. airline to roll out an Alexa ‘skill’. United says the move proves it is dedicated to “innovation and providing a smoother travel experience for its customers.”

United Airlines becomes first U.S. airline with an Alexa skill

The skill can be used on any Alexa enabled device including the Echo and Echo Dot. The application is available now and is free to use. United also says the skill can be used to ask a number of other questions which it hopes will improve the passenger experience. Examples provided by United include:

“Alexa, ask United what is the status of my flight to San Francisco?”
“Alexa, ask United does United flight 869 have power outlets?”

Although the ability to check-in for your flight with the help of Alexa will only be available on U.S. domestic flights when your United MileagePlus account has been connected to Alexa.

Not that United is the only airline making use of Alexa. In June, low-cost airline, EasyJet became Europe’s first airline to acquire an Alexa skill. EasyJet hasn’t gone as far as United with its integration but it does allow passengers to easily check the status of their flight and the ability to access the EasyJet app.

Automation making “life easier” for airline passengers?

Fabrice Rousseau, who represents Amazon and works on the Alexa Skills team said the service was all about providing a “natural interaction” – claiming that it “makes life easier.” It’s true, it may save a few seconds in accessing an airline website or app – especially if you’re trying to multitask (like packing your bag at the same time).

But it’s not just Alexa that airlines are using to automate their interactions with customers. A few days ago, Dutch airline KLM said it had become the first airline in the world to launch a verified WhatsApp business account. The service will push automatic updates to customers about the status of their flight as well as other announcements.

KLM already offers a similar service via Facebook Messenger, Twitter and WeChat for Chinese customers. Luckily, KLM is still offering a personal touch with the ability to message the airline and receive a human response 24/7.

Meet ‘Finn’ – the next generation chatbot

The airline says it is testing tech that will guess the best response to a customer’s query and offer a response for the agent to reply back. It hopes the service will mean customers get a response much faster than at present. But if that machine generated answer doesn’t suit, KLM is still allowing its agents to customise the message (for the time being at least).

Not that you should expect that personal touch at every airline. Finnair has become the latest airline to launch an AI driven Facebook Messenger chatbot. Dubbed ‘Finn’, the service will allow customers to book flights, check their flight status and answer other questions. Only if the chatbot is stumped, will your message be sent to a human agent to answer.

“Exploiting artificial intelligence is an integral part of our transformation strategy. We are growing and we constantly look for new ways to improve our customer service,” explained Rogier van Enk at Finnair.

Of course, Finnair isn’t the only airline to be making use of chatbots and it probably won’t be the last. Now airlines just have to work out how to automate the work of flight attendants.

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