Asian carriers are no strangers to the global aviation push toward digitizing and automating customer service functions. But to serve customers that still want “human” interaction, several airlines in Southeast Asia are turning to chatbots and artificial intelligence.

Take Philippine Airlines and Cebu Pacific Air, the latest regional carriers to push digitizing customer support services.

This comes on the heels of increased online bookings through their respective web pages and mobile applications, according to separate interviews with officials of both airlines. 

Cebu Pacific, the Philippines’ largest domestic carrier, will be formally rolling out its chatbot, Charlie, to assist travelers in their travel plans, last-minute arrangements, and even questions on promotions. On test mode since January, Charlie, available 24/7 on the airline’s website and Facebook page, has interacted with some 393,000 passengers.

“While we still have traditional [voice] call centers over the years we’ve seen a decline in call volumes, as the mode of customer communication has shifted to social media channels,” Cebu Pacific CEO Lance Gokongwei told Skift.  

“This is further reduced by our digitization efforts,” he added. “Some processes or customer requests such as refunds or re-bookings, which could only be done before by a customer agent, are now self-service.”

Data provided by the airline shows that of total sales, just 0.7 percent bookings are made via its call center year-to-date. In 2014, bookings via call centers still accounted for 5-7 percent of total. The decrease, explained Gokongwei, was due to its “continued push for consumers to book via our website or app.”

Cebu Pacific’s voice call centers are now outsourced, according to Gokongwei, as they handle a small number of bookings and reservations, as well as emergency response, general travel enquiries and special-handling needs.

However, its customer command center, where the chatbot function sits, is in-house, staffed 24/7 by about 100 employees. They also respond to voice calls in cases or emergencies, for instance, an American customer calling in at say, after 9 pm to check on his booking.

“We continue to shift our products and processes to digital platforms. It’s a work-in-progress, and we adapt as necessary. More than cost savings, we are investing in such innovations to improve the customer experience,” said Gokongwei.

Digitizing for Right-sizing

Asia’s oldest airline, Philippine Airlines, is also embarking on a digital transformation, a move its president and chief operating officer, Gilbert Santa Maria, said will pave the way for the company’s right-sizing and return to profitability.

The flag carrier is engaged in “a top-to-bottom review of our distribution network with the aim of making the airline more accessible to our customers, and we will see more enhancements and innovations in the coming years,” said its vice president for corporate communications, Jose Enrique Perez de Tagle, in an interview.

“We will roll out a chatbot in 2020 and further beef up the capability of our contact centers, for example.”

Online sales on the website and app are on track to grow up to 30 percent this year and account for more than one-third of total sales, he shared.

“Going forward, we will continue to support the requirements and needs of our customers, whether face to face, voice or website,” he said.

Philippine carriers’ digitization moves follow AirAsia’s recent announcement that it was closing its voice call centers by the end of the year as it pursues full digitization to further enhance its customer experience. 

In the Philippines, Air Asia is owned by businessman and lawmaker Mikee Romero and his wife Sheila, under F&S Holdings. F&S now owns 60 percent of  the low-cost carrier, while Air Asia founder Tony Fernandes and other Malaysian investors hold the rest.

AirAsia has invested in a new Artificial Intelligence-powered chatbot dubbed Ava (AirAsia Virtual Allstar), who speaks 11 languages and, since implementation in January, has handled some 50,000 inquiries per day, with 75 percent of those being actioned and processed, according to AirAsia Chief Customer Happiness Officer Adam Geneave.

“This advancement allows us to deliver faster, more consistent and effective contact and resolution outcomes for our guests,” said Geneave in a statement.

But Air Asia customers will continue to have access to the airline’s expanded support channels, including 24-hour live chat with an AirAsia service agent via Facebook, Twitter and WeChat, as well as the AirAsia Support page function.  

The Case for Chatbots

Chatbots and messaging apps do open up a new way for people to plan and manage travel, said Oliver Plogmann, managing director and Accenture’s Aviation lead for Asia Pacific, Africa, Middle East and Turkey.

Accenture works with clients, including airlines, to enable “frictionless conversation” across various channels including message, chatbot and live agents. 

“We’ve seen that using automation, AI, and data insights not only improves the customer experience, but also reduces costs for the airline. At the same time it allows live agents to concentrate on the more complex queries,” he added. 

Accenture helped Avianca, the national airline for Colombia, design and launch a “travel-experience” chatbot for its 28 million customers. 

“The chatbot, Carla, enables Avianca’s customers to confirm itineraries and flight status, locate luggage, and for domestic flights, travelers can actually check-in through Carla using a mobile device,” said Plogmann. 

Customers can also consult Carla regarding ticket refunds and use it to provide real-time feedback to Avianca’s customer service. Carla supports several travel-related queries beyond those provided by single-purpose industry chatbots. “For example, Carla can also show customers weather forecasts for their destinations, and alerts can easily be set to remind travelers to pack their passports or pick up clothes at the dry cleaners before heading to the airport,” said Plogmann.

Accenture also worked for an airport it declined identify which started with a chatbot that saw nearly 4,000 customer communications a day and growing in the first nine months after implementation, he claimed. “Because of this success, for the next phase the airport is now looking to scale with richer business messaging apps such as WhatsApp for Business and Apple Business Chat,” he said.

In addition, the data collected through the project is now helping with the  airport’s overall customer strategy, said the Accenture executive.

Photo Credit: AirAsia: Closing all voice call centers by this yearend. AirAsia Group