Can chatbots replace airline mobile apps?

“We think that you should just be able to message a business in the same way you message a friend,” Mark Zuckerberg said on stage during Facebook’s developer conference in April. “You should get a quick response. And it shouldn’t take your full attention like a phone call would. And you shouldn’t have to install a new app.”

Mark’s vision for the future of messaging has potentially serious implications for airlines.

Airline mobile apps of today

Last week was a heavy week of travel for me – I was on a plane every day of the week. I was flying an airline I don’t usually fly, so I checked in using their mobile website. They prompted me to download the airline’s mobile app so they could keep me notified. I did. I received my boarding pass on the app, which I flashed to go through security. The app soon notified me that there’s been a gate change, which was great as I walked directly to the new gate.

My next flight was on the airline I usually fly. I already had the airline’s mobile app on my phone. I followed the same process, just using another app. At the airport, I used apps like LoungeBuddy to determine which lounge to use, and the TripIt app for flight delay status. At the end of the week, I deleted the new airline mobile app, since I wouldn’t be flying them for the foreseeable future. I’m not alone.

On average, frequent travellers have memberships with seven different airline loyalty programs. While every airline is rushing to release an app, it is not the most convenient for frequent fliers to deal with multiple airline mobile apps each time they travel. In fact, 85% of apps that are downloaded do not get opened a second time after the first month! Chatbots, though, are not new. Uber, for instance, already lets customers use Facebook Messenger to book, track, and pay for rides using the Facebook Messenger app — without having to visit the native app even once! If Mark’s vision takes off, it would simplify life for travellers dramatically.

First airline chatbots come to fore

KLM Royal Dutch Airlines has partnered with Facebook to develop a dedicated “chatbot” within the Messenger platform. As they confirm a booking on KLM’s website, passengers are asked if they can be contacted via Messenger. Once that’s authorized, almost all communication between the airline and passenger can take place via Messenger. The booking confirmation is sent right after payment. A check in reminder is sent 24 hours before the flight. Upon check-in, the boarding pass is sent via the chat interface, which can be used to pass through security as well. Any flight status notifications like a gate change or delay are sent through seamlessly as well.

Since Messenger enables two-way conversations, passengers can get in touch with KLM without dialing a number or opening another app. Any customer service requests, like a seat change or upgrade, can be sent as a text message to KLM. Since the passenger record is already connected with their Facebook ID, the airline can make the required changes without asking for mundane information like PNR number or frequent flier number, making the process much more convenient.

As we had analyzed previously, KLM’s Facebook Messenger integration allows passengers to access most of the post-booking services via the app, without ever visiting klm.com or downloading the KLM mobile app. Further down the travel spectrum, brands like Hyatt are partnering with Messenger to provide instant services to in-house guests. For example, while staying at Hyatt, if you don’t want to browse the channel directory to find CNN, then just ask on Messenger and you’ll get an answer right back to tune into channel number two. Now that airlines increasingly offer in-flight WiFi, we can easily imagine a day when a passenger sends a request via Messenger, rather than press the hard-to-reach call button.

Re-thinking airline mobile apps

Chatbots like the one KLM runs via Messenger are meant to help travellers by providing a convenient, 24/7 interface for the parties to get in touch with each other, without opening another app. Speed is of the essence. In an age of short attention spans, this might be a godsend for many travellers.

Ironically, this is a stark departure in the digital strategy pursued by airlines in the past decade.

Airlines have invested in a plethora of mobile apps to help travellers. Most have just one core app, but some like Japan Airlines have released as many as ten different apps. While many airlines have released apps to catch up with competition, some like easyJet and jetBlue have invested significant resources in making their apps stand out. The technology departments of these airlines wouldn’t be too excited to learn that chatbots would potentially lead to a dramatic fall in their native app’s usage.

This is of concern because the primary motivation behind creating airline mobile apps was to collect user data. Traditionally, airlines struggled to get passenger data due to the travel agents and GDS intermediaries. Then came airline websites, which established a direct link with the customer that collected minimal user details. Finally, airline mobile apps gave the opportunity to be in constant touch directly with passengers, especially on the day of travel.

If chatbots take off, airlines will have to re-think their data needs, with the likes of Facebook acting as intermediaries. Moreover, while the speed of response is great with chatbots, what about personalization? Airlines would do well not to let go of that “human element” when it comes to dealing with their customers.

Airlines need to re-imagine the digital landscape with the advent of chatbots to complement their mobile and web strategies. Chatbots offer airlines the opportunity to remain by the side of the passenger as a helpful assistant, especially on the day of travel. With the backing of major players like Facebook and Microsoft, there’s a high likelihood of chatbots succeeding. At that time, airlines don’t want to be caught with a deer in headlights.

Shashank Nigam

Shashank Nigam

Shashank Nigam is the CEO of SimpliFlying and a globally sought-after consultant, speaker and thought-leader on airline branding and customer engagement strategy. He is also the youngest winner of the Global Brand Leadership Award and has addressed senior aviation executives globally, from Chile to Canada and from Sydney to San Francisco. Shashank's perspectives have found their way into major media outlets, including CNN Travel, CNBC, MSNBC, Bloomberg UTV, Mashable and in leading publications like Airline Business, ATW, Aviation Week, and others. Shashank studied Information Systems Management and Business Management at Singapore Management University and Carnegie Mellon University. Hailing from India, he splits his time between Singapore and Vancouver, among other cities.
Shashank Nigam
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