This Isn’t A United Problem, It’s An Industry Problem

United Airlines is making headlines after forcibly removing a passenger from an overbooked flight. The behavior was absolutely avoidable, but here’s the thing–United started out by trying to look out for employees’ and customers’ best interests. They prioritized their employees, which consumers generally praise, but current ticketing technology and rigid policies backed the crew into a corner, leading to bad decisions riddled with human error. And while it’s United in the spotlight today, the situation shines a light on the entire airline industry’s difficulties with customer experience and empathy.

United should have known in advance of the flight that there was a high probability of an overbooking. The airline makes that flight every day, 365 days a year, and has huge stockpiles of weather, flight performance, and passenger data. Airlines have gotten really good at using technology to strategically overbook flights to maximize profits and company value, but have failed to expand their capabilities beyond online ticket sales and mobile check in. United’s story is indicative of a larger, industry-wide problem, one that reveals new opportunities for customer-focused technology.

To solve persistent customer relations problems, airlines need to start investing in Augmented Intelligence (AI) to get closer to customers at every stage of their journey to provide better passenger experiences. In the case of overbooking, AI can predict and solve it in a few key ways. With all of the available data, it’s pretty simple to determine the probability of an overbooking and trigger an alert or escalation past a certain threshold. AI can also analyze passenger data to categorize those traveling for business or pleasure, filter out people with connecting flights, and send a targeted email offer to customers who are most likely to accept an incentivized flight change. If a customer accepts the change, an AI bot can adjust the reservation and send a new confirmation.

Airlines also need to increase the empathy they have for their customers and offer proactive solutions for common problems. Customers want experiences that are simple and personal, and asking passengers to deplane after being seated is the antithesis of either. A key worry and frustration for travelers is whether they’ll arrive on time, which is the main reason no one wants to give up a seat on a full flight. By investing in AI solutions, airlines can use their data to understand and empathize with customer needs and connect customer experience to business value.

Over the past several days, I’ve read a number of articles offering advice on what United could have done to defuse the situation in the moment. But if we all agree the situation should never have occurred, it’s not productive to argue about what should or could have been done. When it comes to customer experience, companies should be proactive, not reactive. AI can analyze and learn from an unlimited amount of data to predict problems and provide solutions. It’s become the primary driver of customer obsession, but the airline industry is asleep on its feet. The first carrier to seize that opportunity and transform into an intelligence-driven business will see a huge uptick in customer loyalty and advocacy, and has the potential to become the Apple of air travel.

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