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Airline chatbots debut on each side of Tasman

February 16, 2017 Headline News No Comments Email Email

Major airlines on both sides of the Tasman have proclaimed the launch of new ‘chatbot’ systems of communicating with customers – news that may be inspirational or not, depending on your tastes and how the new systems work out.

Qantas has launched Qantas Concierge, a Facebook Messenger bot the airline says will give customers “personalised travel inspiration”. Qantas says it launched the bot to deliver “faster responses and more relevant information through easily accessible channels”.

Air New Zealand, meanwhile, has unveiled its new chatbot, Bravo Oscar Tango – Oscar for short.

The New Zealand carrier says Oscar will initially help customers with commonly asked queries, offering “a more personalised experience than searching a traditional Frequently Asked Questions section online”.

Anyone who has tried holding a phone “conversation” with the Telstra answer-robot may be excused mixed feelings about the airline developments. Online robots, often carrying human names and attempting to masquerade as humans, can be decidedly un-human when you try to ask them questions. Then again, Frequently Asked Questions on websites are notorious for answering every question in existence – except the one you are trying to ask.

Kristin Carlos, Qantas head of digital and entertainment, says Qantas Concierge will boost Qantas’ presence on Facebook while offering “immediate travel solutions”.

“We recognise that different people want to communicate with us in different ways. With over 15 million people on Facebook in Australia, growing our presence with the social networking service makes sense,” Carlos said.

“Qantas is committed to being at the forefront of innovation in the way we talk to our customers and the way we help them navigate the complexities of travel, he added.

“Qantas Concierge is designed to save customers the time and energy involved in planning a trip while empowering them to self-serve from a virtual library of rich travel content.

“Through Qantas Concierge customers can access sale information and destination inspiration in line with their interests, whether that be beach destinations or amazing Airbnbs around the world.”

Qantas is keen to promote Airbnb and increasingly keen to work closely with Facebook as well.

Both the Qantas robot and the Air New Zealand robot will learn as they go. Throughout this year, Qantas plans to grow the ability of its chatbot to offer operational notifications such as itineraries, flight and gate change updates and boarding passes.

Qantas says the launch of Qantas Concierge marks the airline’s beginning as an official Facebook partner. “The partnership will see Facebook work closely with Qantas to connect with new customers via the social networking site and engage with existing audiences in exciting new ways.”

Air New Zealand has confirmed that its Oscar chatbot will learn from conversations that customers have with it, “becoming more user friendly and more helpful the more he interacts”.

Air New Zealand’s chief digital officer, Avi Golan, says Oscar has been launched as a beta product allowing customers to play an active role in training the chatbot.

“This is a new approach for us, getting Oscar out fast and in the early-development stages so that we can build and co-create with our customers. Given Oscar learns natural language it makes sense he learns directly from our customers the types of information they want to know and the language they use, rather than airline jargon.

“The world’s best digital companies foster a culture of customer-led design and collaboration and for the airline to meet its big digital ambitions we must embed this culture of thinking, acting and doing as leading digital companies do.”

Oscar has been launched initially as a help chatbot, to assist with Air New Zealand Lounge, Airpoints and baggage queries, but the airline plans to extend this to both voice and text, integrating with the Air New Zealand Mobile app, other chat platforms and in-home digital assistants.

“Over time we want Oscar to become a virtual travel assistant helping customers across every stage of the journey,” Golan says. There is no doubt artificial intelligence is the future, he adds.

Written by Peter Needham

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