United Launches Chatbot to Ease COVID-19 Concerns

United passengers can simply text a hotline for automated assistance regarding safety, air quality, and more.

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Need to Know

  • The new United Automated Assistant aims to answer common customer queries about sanitary procedures related to flying during the coronavirus pandemic
  • United customers can simply text “clean” to FLYUA (35982) to access the chat service.
  • The automated chatbot will answer questions relating to changes to in-flight service, how to prepare for a flight, and how United is keeping customers safe.
  • The assistant rolls out at a time when customer inquiries are growing, yet business is declining.

Analysis

As more countries move into recovery phases during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and air travel ramps up, airlines are continually improving their abilities to respond to passenger concerns about safety and sanitation. U.S. carrier United, for instance, today announced a new automated chat service that will offer instant answers to customers looking for safety-related peace of mind before they board a flight.

The tool, called the United Automated Assistant, will be programmed to respond to common passenger queries related to health and safety. These queries will include whether United Clubs are open, if there are changes to in-flight services, how to prepare for an upcoming flight, and concerns about air quality. It will also be able to answer a variety of questions about what the airline is doing to keep “airports cleaner and safer.”

“The travel experience has changed a lot from just a few months ago,” said Linda Jojo, executive vice president for technology and chief digital officer at United Airlines. “We’ve overhauled our safety and cleaning procedures and this new text functionality makes it easier for our customers to stay informed.”

In addition to the chatbot, this week United will begin requiring all customers to wear masks while they are waiting to board their flight (passengers are already required to wear masks on-board airplanes). The airline is running a “high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filtration system” on all mainline carriers during boarding, in-flight, and during deplaning.

Travel industry-wide use of chatbots has proven attractive in the wake of COVID-19, as carriers received a record number of queries and complaints; in April 2020, the Department of Transportation recorded 25,000 complaints, 15 times more than usual. Earlier this year, FlightHub and JustFly introduced an automated solution to the spike in customers looking to secure trip refunds: a hotline that, without the use of agents, could process up to 200 requests per hour.

In Canada, WestJet’s Juliet, the first Canadian airline chatbot, was hit with a 1,671% increase in support tickets coming through Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp during the first weeks of the COVID-19 outbreak in North America. AirChat, which is an AI tool that provides airport and airline updates, “learned” to answer health and safety queries related to COVID-19 earlier this year, including questions about self-isolation and whether medical clearance was required for travel.

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