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Automating decisions for better customer service

Mike Schaffner had a nice post that I saw this morning - Some Technology Suggestions for Airline Customer Service. He pointed out that a couple of simple things would represent much better customer service when one is flying. His examples were providing connecting flight information to passengers in flight, especially when flights are disrupted, and making sure that people whose baggage missed the flight don't waste their time waiting for it. This got me thinking about extending this to other aspects of customer service and I realized that the way to approach this would be to consider the decisions that airline passengers must make and then think how you could help. Here goes, with thoughts as to how a passenger might make those decisions and what might help.

Before check in

  • Should I check a bag or try for carry-on?
    Depending on the plane used and the degree to which a flight is full, the risk of having to check a bad anyway varies. Bag check-in times vary by airport and time of day and the risk of a checked bag failing to make a connection depends on the time available and airport at which the transfer happens.
  • When should I leave for the airport?
    The likely departure time of the flight, the decision about checking bags, the security line and bag check in wait at the airport given the time of day, the passenger's tolerance for risk, how they are getting to the airport and the time it typically takes to park and get to the terminal if they are driving all contribute.

At check in

  • Should I buy an upgrade?
    The likelihood of a free upgrade from frequent flier status and the availability of bulkhead/exit row seats might all play a role.
  • What seat should I pick?
    Given the layout of the plane and the nature of available seats (see this site for instance) as well as the passenger's preference this might be a non trivial decision.
  • When should I get to the gate?
    A function of upgrade status, boarding position, need to find space for carry on and likely actual departure time.

At the gate

  • Should I board the plane?
    If the plane is delayed or a connection has been canceled or delayed, perhaps the trip is no longer worthwhile or a complete re-routing is called for.

On arrival

  • Where should I go next?
    Where is my connecting flight/baggage?
  • Can I make my connecting flight and do I need to hurry?
    When it is going to leave, how long does it take to get there from here, will it wait for me?
  • What are my options if I miss my connecting flight?
    How can I complete my travel if I miss the connection

In every case the airline has much of, if not all, the information needed to advise the passenger of the "best" decision. A regular flier who might be willing to share some additional information (like how they travel to the airport or where they are going to leave from for a given trip) could improve the quality of decision-making. In most cases there are rules from the airline's experience, rules from third parties (like security requirements), data from various sources and customer preference rules (that could be defaulted or inferred from other customers). Some predictive analytics also come into play, like predicting how full a flight is likely to be (from past history) or the likelihood of a weather delay. A focus on these decisions, and the automation and ongoing management and improvement of them, could deliver a much higher level of customer service. With more screens in airports that are truly programmable and with the increasing percentage of passengers with SMS or email enabled phones, there seems little reason why airlines could not focus on these customer service decision-points and improve the visibility and decision-making accuracy of their passengers to everyone's benefit.


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