Latest 12 Oct 2021 | Intelligent Automation | 6 min read

Airline Conversational Intent Data: Combatting the New Contact Center Surge Through Intelligent Automation

While the issues affecting airlines across the world are far from over, there has been a positive trend for many carriers since our last deep dive into our airline data at the end of Q2. More vaccinations and fewer travel restrictions mean passenger numbers are recovering, but not yet to pre-pandemic levels.

There was actually an 18-month high for US airlines in July, with 73m travellers, and it’s a similar story in Europe, where Ryanair more than doubled its passenger numbers compared to September 2020.

This is our second quarterly deep dive into customer behaviour in the airline industry (you can find our last one here), where we look at conversational volumes and intents for our airline partners and analyse the patterns and shifting consumer habits.  

This increase in activity is very much reflected in our own platform data too, as you can see in the graph below.

Airline industry - overall

It shows the conversational intents seen by our airline partners, and the two key lines to focus on are the red (refund, credit and voucher) and turquoise (flight booking). They have risen almost in tandem since June, but particularly steeply throughout August and September. In April, we predicted this surge would happen after the events of March 2020, and it’s a trend that could see pressure on contact centers build, certainly not to the degree we saw 18 months ago but without the right kind of automation in place, it could still see staff swamped to a point where customers are having negative experiences.

 

I’ll take you through what the data is showing us for each of the most important intents and what it could mean for the immediate and long-term needs for customer facing teams. 

 

This Quarter's Top Intents

 

Passenger Numbers are Taking Off

Q3 airlines - flight bookings (no title)

Intent: Flight Booking

If we take out the ever-present March 2020 spike that appears in all our data, this intent shows a definite shift in consumer behaviour since the pandemic. The number of flight booking conversations is around 3x higher than in September 2019, showing clearly that consumer habits have shifted.

The number of flight booking conversations coming through our platform is also at its highest level since the March 2020 spike, and is rising sharply in the past month, suggesting for the first time this year that confidence in the safety of flying and lower chances of disruption is driving higher demand for bookings.

 

What it means

It lays out the effect that Covid-19 has had in accelerating the shift towards digital solutions. Our airline partners have seen an increase of 300% in monthly conversations around flight bookings, at a time when global passenger numbers are still around ⅕ of their 2019 levels.

It highlights that where digital channels were once a necessity, they have now become a preference and messaging channels are growing in popularity as a means of contacting airlines. It also shows that integrating automation and messaging into your customer engagement strategy is vital as international travel continues to recover. If our partners are at 3x volume when travel is only at 22% of pre-pandemic levels, we could see a 15x growth in conversations if and when passenger numbers return to ‘normal’. Carriers need to make hay while the sun shines and put in place a means of communication that won’t be overwhelmed by that volume and can handle automation at scale to keep customers satisfied with their conversational experience. 

 

As an extra indication that the pressures on global air travel are easing, I also wanted to highlight the patterns we saw in flight bookings (turquoise line) and flight cancellations (black line).

Q3 airlines - bookings and cancellations no title (imovie)

As you can see from April onwards the two lines mirror each other as they grow, with cancellation conversations having the largest volume, but the growth does show that more people are interested in flying than the early part of 2021. 

The very final section in September interests us the most. It’s the first time in more than a year that flight bookings conversations have overtaken cancellations. Confidence has clearly been growing for 6 months and we’ll take a look at the other intents to understand what that means and how it’s likely to manifest with passengers. 

 

Q3 airlines - refunds, vouchers and credit (no title)

Intent: Refund, Credit and Voucher

A big part of our April prediction on the increase in customer conversational volume was tied to this intent. As the desire and ability to travel increases, the measures put in place by airlines across the world to preserve their cashflow are resolving themselves with customers looking to redeem, with a big surge since the summer months, and particularly since September.

 

What this means

This data, coupled with the increase in flight booking conversations, suggests the surge we expected to see earlier this year is here. At a time when contact center capacity is likely to be lower than pre-pandemic, without the right communication channels and automation, it will be difficult to handle this volume of conversations and keep customers happy and satisfied. 

It’s not a simple process to redeem credit, so intelligent automation combined with human agents is the way to handle it, which is easier said than done. Leveraging the power of a tool like Conversocial’s Switchboard would allow for bi-directional handoffs between bot and agent, with bots able to perform tasks like information gathering or secure payments, making for a quicker and more seamless experience when the agent is involved – and it all takes place without leaving the conversation. 

 

Seat change requests

 

Intent: Seat Change Requests

This isn’t one of the headline intents that we jump to when trying to determine big trends in airline customer conversations, but this graph does show that people enquiring about changing seats has sharply spiked since Spring 2021. In line with the other intents, we have seen a steady growth over the early part of the past 6 months, with a much steeper growth through September.

 

What this means

It proves that more passengers are flying. We can look at data for flight bookings, cancellations or voucher redemption to offer an insight into the intent of the conversations, but it doesn’t tell us whether it’s people who just want to discuss their bookings or whether their vouchers are still valid. 

We can look at the rise in seat change request conversations as a real indication that people are actually flying again. You can get in touch for other intents but not necessarily be travelling, but trying to change seats is something that only a person intending to fly would have any interest in.

With this intent mirroring the growth of bookings, we can see a real indication that confidence in international travel is growing and that there’s a real opportunity to integrate messaging channels and be better prepared for the impending surge.


 

At the beginning of the pandemic, airlines, and contact centers in particular, were not ready for the unprecedented level of customer conversations. This time round, the spike is a lot less sharp but the channels consumers are choosing to contact airlines has changed.

Relying on legacy tech such as telephone systems or live chat, with not enough consideration given to messaging channels and automation, will see agents struggling to cope with volume potentially 10-15x what they were dealing with in late 2019. Integrating messaging won’t just help manage the increase in conversations more effectively, it will provide a more seamless experience for customers through intelligent automation and the ability to spot trends in customer intents and predict where and when the next surges are likely to come from.

 

We'll have another airline intent deep dive at the end of Q4, if you want to learn having meaningful continuous conversations with your customers, get in touch here.

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