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Airlines are turning to the popular messaging app WhatsApp to connect with their customers. Some, such as KLM, Malaysia Airlines and Etihad have already introduced features through the app that would traditionally be done by on a desktop or phone. Artificial Intelligence developments mean you could use WhatsApp to book flights in the not-too-distant future as well.

How will this work, given the messaging app is designed for human-to-human communications, which airline technology has minimised the need for? At last week’s World Aviation Festival in London, aviation app developer ASI Group gave a glimpse of the future of airline travel technology.

It’s all about the increased use of chatbots, Ron Chapman, founder of ASI Group explained to TPG. Chatbots are sophisticated AI technology that allows a system, program or app to chat with a real person as if they were a real person. You might already be chatting with a chatbot when you’re communicating with an airline or hotel through their website’s online chat or through their app without even knowing it.

The logic behind the use of chatbots is that many customers would contact a company with the same questions repeatedly, such as “How do I cancel my reservation?”, or “How do I select my seat online?” Rather than having the expense of a physical person answering the same questions repeatedly, the bot can learn to recognise these questions and provide the same answer via text to the customer. Chapman describes this in the simplest terms as a “request and respond process”.

When a question becomes too unusual or complicated for the bot to recognise, it then goes through to a real person for human consideration and answer.

So how can this work specifically with WhatsApp? The chatbot automation can be used in WhatsApp just as it can — and already is — through airline apps. This can include information to book a flight like origin and destination, date(s) and number of passengers. The “request and respond process” can then collect enough information to provide a flight option. As for payment, that is likely to be performed outside of WhatsApp by providing a link in the app through to a secure payment page — either on the airline’s website or app.

Dutch Airline KLM has been using WhatsApp since 2017 to communicate with its passengers. After recently booking a flight through its desktop site, I was surprised and pleased to receive my booking confirmation via WhatsApp as well as the traditional email.

KLM also issues boarding passes through WhatsApp, meaning I do not need to download the airline’s own app. Late last year, the airline introduced Family Updates, where it will update your close contacts via WhatsApp on the status of your journey. This is particularly useful when a passenger is in the air and out of Wi-Fi or network range, so waiting friends and family know where you are and when you will arrive.

TPG contacted KLM regarding its plans for integrating flight-booking technology with chatbots, but the airline did not respond by time of publication.

Spirit Airlines, an ultra-low cost carrier in the US, just this month rolled out the functionality to book a flight through WhatsApp, though it is charging passengers a hefty $25 (£20). The high fee suggests it has not yet developed the Chatbot technology to perform this function at a low price. Instead, the WhatsApp answers are likely being written by a person, so the passenger will pay the costs that come with this.

Featured image by Katherine Fan / The Points Guy

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