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Air New Zealand is using Google Assistant to offer customers a hands-free option to source a range of information about the airline’s flights, products and services

AI, AR and social robotics lead from Air New Zealand – By Iain MacIntyre

Air New Zealand is proactively exploring the potential of developments in artificial intelligence (AI), augmented reality (AR) and social robotics as a means of enhancing its customer offerings and experiences.

Having introduced the customer service chatbot Oscar in February last year, the airline has launched further related initiatives via Amazon’s digital assistant Alexa, Google Assistant and Google’s wireless bluetooth Pixel Buds during the recent December-January period.

Air New Zealand customer shared services product manager Joey Faust says the developments – some of which place the airline as a leader in the respective fields – form part of Air New Zealand’s goal of establishing itself as a leading digital organisation both in Australasia and globally.

“Previously, if a customer did not see the exact information they were looking for on our website or mobile app, they would need to call our contact centre for more information, and this isn’t always a preferred option for customers,” he tells FTD.

“Oscar and our other natural language channels give customers more options to source information. What’s been great is that these tools and channels are allowing us to get a lot of direct feedback from customers that we can use to further improve our digital capabilities.”

Oscar and Alexa

Available on Air New Zealand’s website and mobile app, Oscar is described as providing both a time-saving and personalised experience in assisting customer enquiries when compared to a traditional FAQs (frequently asked questions) option.

Initially launched to specifically assist with Air New Zealand Lounge, Airpoints and baggage queries, Oscar has progressively advanced to now being able to successfully answer about 75% of questions. The airline has noted customers are increasingly embracing the technology, which in turn is freeing its customer service agents to focus on the more complex customer queries.

“Oscar can speak to around 380 different topics and has more than 1000 conversations a day on average,” says Mr Faust.

Available via the Amazon Alexa skill store, Air New Zealand’s Alexa offering provides a voice-activated means for customers to communicate with the airline via such devices as the Amazon Echo. This capability has been described as particularly useful for customers with their ‘hands full’ who are seeking to make last-minute travel preparations and therefore do not have to manually access information via a device.

“After installing the skill, a user can ask Alexa to ‘talk to Air New Zealand’ or specifically to ‘ask Air New Zealand if my flight is on time’. We are looking forward to adding more exciting features to our Alexa skill in the future,” Mr Faust comments.

Similarly, the Google Assistant offering provides customers with another hands-free option to source a range of information about the airline’s flights, products and services. “Our Google Assistant action and Amazon Alexa skill are based on many of the same AI and natural language processing technology components, but we see key distinctions between voice assistants and messaging-based assistants in terms of when, how and why our customers will use them,” Mr Faust notes. 

“Messaging is great for passing links and images for customers to self-service, while with voice our customers expect a greater level of personalisation.”

Live translations

Venturing into a different realm, Air New Zealand is also exploring the use of Google’s Pixel Buds and the associated handsets and wireless headphones as a means of enabling live translation of 40 languages. 

Air New Zealand is exploring the use of Google’s Pixel Buds as a means of enabling live translation of 40 languages

With the airline now operating to 30 international destinations and its customers speaking an increasingly diverse range of languages, the technology is seen as potentially playing a pivotal role in customer communications when multi-lingual employees are not immediately at hand.

“We’ve conducted some trials behind the scenes to explore how this technology could work in the check-in and in-flight environments. This is part of a wider approach, where we’re looking at a range of new technologies and considering how these can help to enhance the experience we offer our customers and the way we work,” Mr Faust explains.

“The Google Pixel Buds are just one example, and while it’s an interesting technology for us to play and experiment with, we don’t have any current plans to introduce it to our customers or onboard the aircraft.”

Digital journey

To fully explore and harness the potential of such AI, AR and social robotics advancements, Mr Faust says Air New Zealand established a specific digital function within the organisation in 2016.

“[We] have been on a journey to transform the way we work, moving from having a traditional IT department to having digital as a core part of our DNA. We see technology as playing an incredibly important part of the customer experience, and therefore experimenting with new and emerging technologies is critical,” he notes.

“As part of our transformation, we’ve structured ourselves as a product organisation to make sure we have an unrelenting focus on building awesome products for our customers, using design-led thinking and continuous customer feedback.”

Air New Zealand’s chatbot Oscar

In regards to the length of time required to bring such new offerings to the marketplace, Mr Faust notes Oscar was able to be developed in under six months. “We have a great digital team that is always working to increase our capabilities and decrease our time to market,” he says.

“Our goal of continuous innovation means that we try to experiment and test our ideas at every stage. Sometimes that means working with a small team of customers before releasing a new feature, and sometimes that means launching a new product to see how it does.

“With Oscar, we made the decision to launch as a beta product without a big testing or validation phase, because we knew that only through lots and lots of interactions with real customers would he improve.

“We believe that as customers get more digitally savvy they can understand and expect to interact with emerging products as part of our efforts to make their experience better.”

Ongoing testing

Mr Faust adds that Air New Zealand can be running numerous technology experiments at any one time. “Right now we are looking at ways to improve fuel efficiency, improve flow through our airport spaces and provide better visibility to cargo movements,” he says.

“As these experiments prove out, we will look to change our processes to take advantage of these new technologies. Not all of these changes will be visible to customers directly, but many will.”

Iain MacIntyre is an award-winning journalist who specialises in transport issues within New Zealand; he can be contacted at i.macintyre@xtra.co.nz

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