The airline industry has been on an upward trend for the past couple of years, and this year, the number of flights operated globally is expected to reach 39.4 million. But it’s not all good news. According to FlightStats, a subsidiary of London’s Cirium, during the 30 days between October 19 and November 18, 2019, global flight delays totaled 499,631 and cancellations during the same period totaled 30,505.
For an industry that spends significant time and money on cultivating customer loyalty and retention, the specter of irregular operations continuously threatens to undermine the very customer experience they strive to deliver and the brand image they work hard to maintain.
An Industry-Wide Problem
The menace of regular schedule disruptions will continue to plague both carriers and travelers alike for the foreseeable future. Planes will continue to have mechanical issues. The weather will remain unpredictable. Air traffic will get even more congested. While airline executives lament the impact of even a single flight disruption, the impact to millions of flights and passenger journeys annually is enough to keep them up at night.
Airline disruptions not only trigger a series of downstream knock-on effects that impact an airline’s entire system, stranding aircraft and crews in out-of-position locations, but also break the trust travelers put in their carriers to get them to their final destination when they said they would. So it is paramount that airlines have a strategy in place with the right supporting technology to ensure that passenger disruptions do not become a trapdoor in their efforts to ensure a positive customer experience at every touchpoint along the traveler journey.
As an example, let’s assume it’s one of the busiest travel days of the year and one of the world’s largest airports is shut down due to inclement weather. Airlines operating out of this hub will be under significant pressure to kick their irregular operations strategy into effect, and will face long lines of frustrated customers at their reaccommodation desks, especially from those passengers who will be staying put for the night. Today, the process for managing these passengers is predominantly a manual one, and this is why airlines struggle to handle it as well as they would like to.
If the airline is managing passenger disruptions in-house, they will typically have a team of 30 - 40 customer service agents calling local hotels to find rooms for their stranded passengers. Given long-haul aircraft such as a Boeing 777 can carry between 300 and 400 passengers, the closure of a major airport means a lot of rooms, and that’s a lot of pressure on a team of 30 - 40 people.
Take a large airport like Hartsfield–Jackson Atlanta International Airport that serves more than 20 carriers and can have upwards of 2,500 flights per day; it’s easy to see how the situation can quickly turn from one or two disrupted flights to pictures on TV of passengers sleeping on the floor in the terminal. Everyone is fighting for the same hotel rooms at the same time. And if there just happened to be a convention in town that day, forget it.
In addition to finding rooms for the distressed passengers as quickly as possible, the airline will also be concerned with getting appropriate rooms at an acceptable rate, at a hotel that is convenient to the airport, and addressing the need for meals and round-trip ground transportation as required. Ultimately handing the passenger a paper voucher and sending them on their way.
This one day of disruptions will result in a massive cost to the carrier, so managing the situation efficiently is also a priority. But will customer service agents really have the time to negotiate with hotel staff and ground transportation providers over rates and amenities when they have a long line full of unhappy passengers waiting to find out what’s happening to them?
“Dealing with distressed passengers is always an extremely stressful event for both the airline and its passengers,” said Leonard Horowitz, Senior Director of Operations for Hotel Connections. “More than likely, if I’m a passenger, I’m probably not going to fly with that airline again, and I may even post about my bad experience online, creating a PR problem on top of everything else the airline is already dealing with.” Airlines need to and want to accommodate their distressed passengers as effectively and efficiently as they can but have been limited by the technology they have at their disposal. Until now.
Airlines can now harness the power of artificial intelligence to transform the manual workflows traditionally handled by customer service agents during irregular operations into a rules-driven automated process that can accommodate a plane full of distressed passengers in 15 minutes or less. This new, innovative approach – Intelligent Passenger Management (IPM) -- developed by Hotel Connections, is fundamentally changing the way airlines handle irregular operations, improving the passenger experience, and saving them serious money. IPM is the industry’s only AI-based, end-to-end, fully integrated solution for passenger disruptions, with personalized, omni-channel communications tools and intelligent booking applications, empowering airlines to quickly get passenger journeys back on track with accuracy and operational efficiency.
Let’s return to our example of the weather-related airport closure, where one of the airlines grounded at that airport is faced with accommodating hundreds of passengers who they cannot get out on a flight that day. When the airport closure is announced, the airline’s passenger service system directly notifies Hotel Connections IPM solution of the event using a simple API call and uploads the related flight manifest, which triggers the system to locate and secure accommodations for all passengers.
The system bases all reservation decisions on the airline’s contractual agreements and unique business rules to complete the workflows without the need for human intervention. If the demand for rooms in the local market is high and there is an available room shortage, the system will naturally roll over to procure inventory from secondary sources through a single-API direct connect into all major hotel chains and other private inventory, GDS content and aggregated online and offline content. No more sold out scenarios.
As the hotel arrangements are being secured, IPM will also communicate with local transportation partners via a centralized direct connect to ensure all passengers are transferred to and from the hotel in accordance with their overnight stay and their rebooked travel plans. While this process is ongoing, the airline is regularly communicating with passengers, via their preferred digital channel, giving them control over their experience and leveraging e-vouchers and e-payments to ensure check-in, check-out, payments and reconciliation are seamlessly aligned. Rounding out the process, the solution also includes powerful reporting and analytics tools, and invoicing and reconciliation capabilities to minimize easy-to-miss cost overruns and oversights that agents typically cannot identify or don’t even know to look for.
Carriers who do not have a dedicated passenger recovery system in place can also take advantage of a more advanced version of IPM, with an expanded set of capabilities that enable the airline to solve the passenger accommodation and rebooking challenges within one integrated solution. It does so by engaging global partners who specialize in reticketing, omni-channel passenger notifications and updates, personalization based on ticket class or frequent flyer status, special services for passengers requiring them, electronic boarding passes, and more.
The advent of Intelligent Passenger Management is changing the game for how airlines manage flight disruptions that lead to distressed passengers. Gone are the days of angry passengers standing in long lines waiting for a paper voucher, frustrated with the airline’s agents, and finding themselves with nowhere to sleep and, often, nothing to eat for hours on end. By applying artificial intelligence to existing airline disruption procedures, IPM alleviates unnecessary pressures from airline staff, ensuring a better, faster, more amicable outcome for airline employees and passengers alike.
By Stephani Hawkins and Jeffrey Humin