United launches virtual, on-demand customer service at the airport

Dec 9, 2020

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Aside from wearing masks, one of the biggest pandemic-era changes to the travel experience has been the push to minimise touchpoints.

The latest initiative, dubbed “Agent on Demand,” comes from United. This innovation is designed to help passengers get answers to day-of-departure questions without physically queuing for a gate agent.

For now, the new service is available in Chicago (ORD) and Houston (IAH), and it will roll out to United’s other mainland hubs — Denver (DEN), Los Angeles (LAX), Newark (EWR), San Francisco (SFO) and Washington D.C. (IAD) — by the end of the year.

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There will be large QR codes for customers to scan to access a virtual agent. The web-based platform will then connect travellers to an agent stationed in a remote workspace at the airport and will offer three ways to connect — chat, call or video. While the agents will communicate in English, the chat feature will offer a translation function for more than 100 languages.

(Photo courtesy of United)

Unlike calling the traditional 1-800-UNITED1 (1-800-864-8331) number, these virtual, “on-demand” gate agents are empowered to answer a wide range of timely questions pertaining to seat assignments, upgrade and standby lists, flight status, irregular operation assistance and more.

This will both help minimise the wait for a physical gate agent, while also allowing that agent to focus on other critical pre-departure duties. So long as United doesn’t reduce the number of gate agents assigned to a particular flight, this initiative should be considered a win-win for both employees and passengers.

United confirmed that the wait times to speak to an agent on demand will vary, with calls prioritized based on departure time and urgency of the inquiry.

Only time will tell whether the virtual agent system is practical and useful, but United already piloted the technology at ORD and IAH and says it has received overwhelmingly positive feedback.

(Photo courtesy of United)

This offering joins United’s other recent touchless improvements, including a newly redesigned mobile app and a new platform to select hotels and meal vouchers during flight delays and cancellations.

One of United’s top competitors, American Airlines is also working on touchless initiatives. The Fort Worth-based carrier is trialling an ID verification process that allows you to drop off your checked bags just by scanning your face — no physical paperwork or ID required.

In November, Delta announced a similar initiative. Passengers departing from the carrier’s hub in Detroit (DTW) will soon be able to use their passport number, along with their PreCheck number, to create a virtual ID that will use facial recognition to identify travellers at bag drop, security and during boarding.

Featured photo by Zach Griff/The Points Guy

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