Written by Paul Brugger, Founder and CEO, AirChat
The COVID-19 pandemic is an unprecedented crisis for the aviation industry, but recovery will happen by restoring public confidence in the health and safety of flying.
As travellers return to the skies, one of the most valuable contributions airports can make is to offer clear guidelines and information, addressing their customers’anxiety around travel and supporting public health initiatives.
Airlines and airports have called for uniform rules governing air travel. ICAO’s Council Aviation Recovery Taskforce (CART) has published a new Take-Off framework to manage the risks of COVID-19. One of the key priorities identified under Public Health Risk Mitigation Measures is public education that ensures clear, efficient communication of policies and processes.
“States and stakeholders must work together to distribute accurate information quickly. Information must be as clear, simple and consistent as possible across the entire passenger travel experience,” ICAO writes.
There will be regional variances in what measures are enacted and the industry should prepare for last-minute changes in response to local conditions, for example if a rise in infections causes a renewal of travel restriction to a particular region or regions of the world. It is very possible that the public at large could be confused by policy differences and will want to know what rules apply to their individual journey at any point in time. Indeed, ICAO’s Take-off framework adapts to change with restrictions and additional screening procedures being implemented then lifted as public health conditions allow.
For this reason, it is essential to develop a healthy flying messaging platform that is dynamic, adaptable, reliable, personalized, and timely.
While there are still so many unknowns ahead, airports can benefit from applying the lessons learned as COVID-19 advanced from a limited outbreak to a global pandemic. Many of the tools and resources that were developed to address the sudden changes in travel policy could be useful in planning a far more orderly re-start to operations.
During the COVID-19 outbreak there was a dramatic increase in passenger questions on topics ranging from flight updates to changes to the travel process and general uncertainty. The main aim was to align messaging with the information that passengers were most likely to need during each pandemic phase. That aim continues as everyone plans a return to the skies.
AirChat provides answers to passenger questions automatically and provides real-time flight information over various platforms including Messenger, WhatsApp, Viber and Web-chat. Because the technology uses advanced Natural Language Processing (NLP) and Artificial Intelligence (AI), it can understand and properly interpret passenger questions. Since it is data driven, AirChat can also offer a personalized reply, based on each passenger’s persona. These features not only improve the effectiveness of airport and airline communications, relieving staff in times of high volume, but they also increase customer engagement with the brand.
The days of Phases 1-3 (few human infections) are sadly in the past, and it may be a while before those days are here again. For now, messaging must be focused on boosting traveller confidence.
As ICAO, IATA and ACI emphasize, the aim of returning to air travel is to ensure the health and safety of operations while the threat of COVID-19 remains in the population, while ensuring that aviation does not become a significant vector of transmission of the disease.
Therefore, some of the messaging from Phase 4 — Containment — will apply to a return to service.
It is expected that passengers will have many questions about what health and safety processes that are in place:
During the initial coronavirus outbreak, the response provided was generic, following government or medical advice and recommendations. Some of those generic messages will still apply, but they can be enhanced with more precise guidelines put in place by individual airports and airlines.
The crisis communications for phases 5-6 – Pandemic — will still be relevant. Initially high volumes of questions on border closures needed to be addressed. The volume of questions and requests for flight information spiked significantly as each new travel restriction was introduced.
Where clients offered our service via webchat, AirChat saw this communication channel increase by more than 500%. Importantly, those spikes were also prolonged. During disruptive weather events, for example, higher spikes in queries happen, but over a shorter timescale.
As travel re-starts, the volume of queries is expected to spike again, helping to address demand for answers, especially with limited staffing resources.
Questions will be more varied and more specific than in previous phases, and responses will need to be updated to the latest data.
Including a link to a dedicated Q&A webpage on the airport’s or airline’s website can help keep answers current in a rapid-change situation and can also help support social distancing requirements.
As the pandemic spread, AirChat was able to help and inform passengers by adapting our replies to travel queries. Instead of specific flight queries — “flight AB1234 on the 12/02/2020” —passengers were asking for information on a generic location; passengers started asking for “Flights to London”, “Flights to England” or “Flights to the U.K.”, or even “Flights to Europe”. Instead of asking about a specific day of travel, queries focused around “the next available” day of travel.
Using Machine Learning, AirChat was able to adapt and offer passengers a list of options based on real-time information from the airport flight feed. This change helped address repatriation questions, taking pressure off customer service teams.
During the post-peak phase, the same flexible queries might encourage those who would like to take a trip — but are uncertain of their options — to venture out.
As part of their initiative, AirChat also informed passengers in advance on the status of the queues in the security area/immigration area/passport control. The system aids ‘social distancing’ by notify passengers of the location of the shortest queues when they depart or arrive at the airport, so they can avoid crowding.
In the days before the pandemic, it was common to see crowds at airports gathered under the departure boards. To support social distancing, passengers can now be encouraged to rely on services to push valid information directly to each passenger’s personal electronic device. This way, they can find a quiet spot in the airport to await boarding, reassured that they will be notified on time when they should proceed to the gate.
Other helpful messaging can include information about new health and safety features in place, such as whether masks are required to be worn, whether health kits are available for sale, and where sanitizers are located after the security checkpoint.
The path to recovery for the airport and airline industries will depend on consumer confidence, and information can be a strong confidence booster. Airlines and airports should explore options to simplify communications, anticipating a potential strain on customer service agents by giving travellers better self-service options.
Offering passengers dynamic, adaptable, reliable, personalized and timely answers to their questions has always been a good strategy for success, regardless of the cause of travel disruption.
In this sense, at least, COVID-19 is just like any other crisis: the industry advances when all stakeholders communicate effectively and share knowledge.
Paul Brugger is founder and CEO of AirChat, the IATA Award winning service that provides real-time, intelligent (AI) generated operational, commercial and customer services messages to passengers in 60+ airports across four continents. Paul has been developing and delivering software to major blue-chip institutions since 1996, and has expanded his knowledge and expertise within the field of IT focusing specifically on the internet and social media marketing.