There was a time when buying an airline ticket required a face-to-face interaction with an employee, someone who could offer you impeccable customer service and build a relationship with you that would make you want to use the airline again and again. Today, most of us purchase plane tickets online. While that’s great for convenience, it means that between online booking and digital check-in, the majority of us only interact with airline employees when we’re scanning our boarding pass to get on the plane or requesting a cocktail mid-flight.
In place of more regular human interaction, airlines rely on loyalty programs where frequent flyers can earn rewards for sticking with their favorite carriers. It’s an obvious choice for business travelers, but less so for the bulk of customers who don’t fly as frequently. While families planning that once-a-year trip to Disney World represent big business for airlines, connecting with them and convincing them to buy a ticket from one airline over another is much harder.
“When you look at the airlines, especially the low-cost airlines, it’s really a dog-eat-dog kind of business,” says Jay McCarthy, VP of Product Marketing at the marketing tool company Qubit. “You have very demanding customers that are able to switch to your competitor at a moment’s notice. You have literally seconds and probably one shot at really engaging the customer.”
Qubit works with a variety of businesses to create personalized online experiences using artificial intelligence and machine learning. The goal is to make those experiences seem more like an interaction with a real person. The company’s clients include Emirates, Jet2, Thomas Cook Airlines, and Condor Airlines (in addition to retailers like Topshop, Ubisoft, and Superdry.) In August, Qubit announced a partnership with the low-cost airline Spirit, and another with Frontier last month.
“You have these fleeting moments of opportunity where someone might only be in the market for a flight for a very short period of time, so you’ve really got to have your act together,” McCarthy says. “I think that’s why a lot of the airlines are looking at technology like this to really build the better moments of opportunity.”
So, what exactly is involved in creating a personalized experience? McCarthy says it varies from client to client.
“Every customer that we work with, we go through a process where we learn about what they already have in place, and what’s important for their business,” says McCarthy.
Frontier, for instance, had been using marketing and testing technologies primarily to make cosmetic changes to its website. That worked for a while, but over time, it became clear that design changes alone weren’t going to impact the bottom line. “They had optimized themselves into a good place and they really needed to put together a personalization program rather than an optimization program, and that’s where we come in. That’s our sweet spot,” McCarthy says.
Personalization on airline sites can come in the form of prompts that tell a customer that people from his or her area tend to prefer a particular flight over others, or alerts that there are only a few seats left on a plane so they should consider booking soon.
To make those suggestions, Qubit uses AI and machine learning to simulate tens of thousands of journeys for customers. With data from those fictional trips in hand, the technology can identify ways that airlines can monetize against real customers making real bookings.
“One of the things that [Qubit] allows you to do is actively ask questions of your visitors as they’re on the journey so you can make guesses,” says McCarthy. “It can make that experience so much more human because [it gives you the sense that] you’re having a conversation with someone that really knows what you like.”
For instance, Qubit’s personalization technology can notice that you’re booking a cross-country flight to a vacation destination like Orlando and it will suggest increasing your baggage limit since you’re likely to be bringing home souvenirs on the return leg. Or for customers enrolled in a loyalty program, personalization might mean letting them know that a particular flight will push them into the next tier of service.
Those all seem like minor suggestions, but when it comes to ensuring that a passenger doesn’t miss out on the flight they want or that they aren’t caught off guard by baggage limits, these small additions can have big results. And according to McCarthy, it would take a human analyst roughly 800 hours to complete the same task.
“This is something that computers are really good at and technology is really good at—sorting through these mountains of data to uncover opportunities for personalizing different aspects of the customer experience,” he says. “It’s kind of ironic that we’re using technology to be more human again, but that’s what’s happening.”