From Chatbots To AI Agents: The End Of Traditional Customer Service At Airlines?

American Airlines AAdvantage Business customers can only speak to customer service after being transferred by the airline’s chatbot. The airline is laying off hundreds of agents in customer service.

Soon customer service agents will be displaced en masse by chatbots, but not the kind you’re used to. AI-powered customer service agents will handle the bulk of requests.

Crucially, here’s an AI customer service that is rated by customers as well as human customer service, with better accuracy (sorry, Air Canada). It’s doing the job of 700 full-time agents.

Some businesses, including airlines, will promote human customer service as a premium experience (although eventually, perhaps, AI will be better – but at least initially this will be seen as a premium). And perhaps we’ll see airlines offering live human telephone service as an elite benefit.

For now it’s likely that AI will handle simple, factual requests and enter conversations to drill down into details about policy. How much baggage can I check and at what cost? Is my flight on time? Do I need to re-confirm my flight? I heard the frequent flyer program is changing, how does that affect me (cue ‘talking points’)?

You’d be surprised by how many basic questions are asked over the phone, when the answers seem obvious to frequent flyers or are readily available on the website.

That American is moving to lay off call center agents without the highest-level AI possible makes me less confident that AI’s handling the lowest level of requests will free up agents to deal with customers more quickly; shorter hold times for the average customer.

At the current rate of advancement we can expect improvements and further deployment of the technology and more inquiries to be dealt with via AI rather than human customer service.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. This will be a good thing. Would a large stable of well-trained, well-behaved, positive employees answer call center calls within 1 minute be better? Yes. But that ain’t ever gonna happen.

    AI will be far superior to the current limited option menu trees followed by a several hour wait to talk to an overworked, disgruntled, and/or lazy human that ***we all know*** can get the answer wrong a significant percentage of the time.

    Lord, I’m waiting for a little AI powered Flight Attendant that can go up and down the aisles offering drinks and snacks.

  2. I used to think the call centers outsourced abroad were bad for customer service. This chatbot customer service is yet another sign in the decline of customer service levels but it may make some of us long for those lousy offshore call center reps.

  3. My AI experiences have been pretty awful so I’m vehemently against the changes at least until competent AI can assume some of the load. Then again I’m a highly experienced traveler and former full time travel agent so when I call it’s not for basic assistance.

  4. Tried to deal with an airline chatbot.

    Might as well been talking to a 2 year old.

    It finally turned me over to an actual human

  5. Progress – get used to it and adapt. Just like there are no telephone operators anymore there is no need for a human to handle 98% of customer service calls (BTW I used to have overall responsibility, as CTO, of a national technology help desk for a Fortune 100 company and negotiated the contract terms related to help desk performance so know what I’m talking about

  6. I am sure that the kind of people who participates in blogs like this will correctly view this as a bad thing for themselves. That’s because we know how to find answers to “basic” questions online ourselves, and so need to be passed on to human agents a much higher % of the time than the general traveling public. Christian, and me, at least, being cases in point.

  7. @Richard – don’t disagree but hope you understand that people that read these blogs are a VERY small percentage of an airline’s customers and frankly don’t change policy as much as many on here want to complain about any little slight, perceived injustice or “devaluation”.

    Also agree this will be most helpful for routine calls and questions that are the vast majority of calls. Also I’m sure there will be a way to escalate (or elite lines) to handle more difficult issues

  8. Gene,
    Cranky Flier has extensively covered AA’s shifting service approach and did so regarding agencies again this week.
    The difference between AA and DL is that DL has invested human resources in the places where high value (read premium) revenue is generated including in the sales process.
    DL hasn’t gotten it right every time esp. at the front lines but they know what generates revenue and how to support it and they continue to be at the top of the industry in most metrics – even if the industry is nowhere near as good as it should be on many of those metrics.

    AA has taken the approach of being content to be a mass-producer with the lowest investment in human resources as possible – offset by labor inefficiencies including due to the fact that DFW is nowhere near conducive to being a large hub operation.

    AA will be fine but other airlines, notably DL, will continue to look to AA as an example of how NOT to run their business. and win over passengers in the process.

  9. I’ve been impressed with SoundHound’s AI chatbots. Been much better and more helpful than talking with workers. Hopefully AA is using them or something similar. Might make a call just to test it out lol

  10. Maybe AI will end up better than some call centers. Some call centers from some places are easy to deal with and have competent people to take care of situations that are unusual. I have had good service from Tracfone agents in the Philippines. On the other hand, I have seen written AI responses with lies in them.

  11. Well the AI may just do exactly what the offshore agents do, only better – like tell you any old rubbish, whatever will get you off the line.

    Moreover the business which is specifying the AI’s answers can easily include instructions to get rid of callers rather than pass them on to an agent for complex queries – tell fibs or just say call back in a week rather than solve the problem. “Yes we will take care of this, no need to call back” ha ha

  12. For me, the solution is to let me do it myself. If the airline changes the schedule and rebooks me into something unacceptable (to me), just let me change it online.

  13. @Dave W

    That’s what would exactly solve most issues. The current systems most airlines use are antiquated. It really should not require an agent to move people from a flight or cancelled flight to another flight. All seats open in the system for sale should be available to change to. Most of the calls are due to rebooking problems. I can only think of a handful of things people would need to call about if airlines had proper online systems and apps like special medical accommodations.

  14. Great — a new roadblock for getting actual customer service. Raise your hand if you have ever been transferred to the correct department by a telephone system that says, “I can understand complete sentences, so tell me how I can help you today.” I have zero faith that AI can handle whatever it is that I am calling about for the very simple reason that if their computer systems could handle the request, I wouldn’t be calling in the first place. Here’s a fun drinking game: take a shot every time there is a hold message reminding you of all the things you can do using the company’s app or website. If you pass out before reaching a human, stop doing business with the company.

  15. Chatbots are useless!!! I’ve never had any success with them.
    Thats why I won’t fly Breeze and Spirit.
    Also, AI is programing, someone wrote the code that allows AI to move forward.
    Therefore, AI reflects the inherit bias of the programer (ie: screw the customer).
    Yet, an airline can hide behind AI and state “well, AI is the issue, not us!”
    Should any other airline go to chatbots and/or AI only, I’ll drop them from the roster as well.

  16. @Tim Dunn

    DL uses Chatbot !!! There is something seriously mentally wrong with you !!!! Do you J/O to DL ads ????????????????

  17. Because chatbots cannot be monetized by an “Are You Being Served?” TV programme, a TMZ clip, nor a Thicktok vidiot.
    Welcome to your dull future.

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