After boarding pass on WhatsApp, AI is next stop: KLM CEO Pieter Elbers

Dutch airline KLM’s tech outlook includes facial recognition of passengers to avoid queues and predicting if a flyer will miss a flight

Updated - September 09, 2018 11:02 pm IST

Published - September 09, 2018 10:48 pm IST - Chennai

Pieter Elbers

Pieter Elbers

With the rapid rise in the use of mobile phones over the last decade, mobile applications have become the easiest way for a company to reach a customer. The question is, whose apps would those be?

To KLM’s CEO, Pieter Elbers, it is not the apps that the airline develops but apps that customers use frequently. The Dutch carrier had spent a lot of time, effort and money in attracting customers to its own websites or apps. But, explains Mr. Elbers, “if I check how many apps you use on your mobile, you don’t use more than say, 10 regularly. So rather than spend millions and millions in attracting customers to our site or app, we decided we need to be where our customers are. If our customers spend half their lives on WhatsApp, then we need to be there, rather than attracting them to our apps.”

Partnership with TCS

KLM piloted the issuance of boarding passes on WhatsApp in September, 2017. Last week, when Mr. Elbers visited IT partner TCS’ in Chennai to celebrate the silver jubilee of its association with the airline, KLM pushed out 10,000 boarding passes through the messaging app that day.

The duo is also looking to use predictive analysis to help forecast wait times at check-in counters. A TCS app for KLM helps a flyer easily assess baggage measurement. A mobile phone camera capture of the luggage helps helps the flyer decide whether it needs to be checked in. “KLM and TCS have launched some of the first digital innovations in the industry,” says Rajesh Gopinathan MD and CEO, TCS. These include apps for bookings, the carrier’s AI-powered social media chatbot, implementing Google Assistant for voice-driven customer service and social media initiatives.

To help eliminate queues, an idea being considered is facial recognition in the elevator that passengers take to get to the check-in counter. “We aim to use AI in decision-making,” says Mr. Elbers. As an airline that connects passengers via Amsterdam to other parts of the world, “the reliability of our operations is very important. Two out of three customers are in transit. Connectivity is crucial. We make the same trade-offs daily — do we wait for a flight, not wait, reroute, etc... where AI can be very useful.” He clarified that the airline’s use of AI is still in early stages.

KLM has about 300 agents engaging with customers on its social media platform. “Today, you cannot take days or weeks to help resolve issues ranging from complaints to retrieving items left behind, to requesting a change of seat.” Its commitment to turnaround on complaints is 60 minutes. “We average 42 minutes now.” How does KLM measure its return on investment in technology? As aviation is a services industry, it bets on the Net promoter score (NPS), which helps service providers understand how likely users are to recommend the service to someone they know. “NPS score includes cabin interaction, customer engagement, use of technology for improved services… It is an academic exercise, but we try to apportion weighted average scores for each segment that contribute to the NPS.” “We do a lot of work with TCS in both the depth and width of our technology. In the latter case, it is important for us to get the same information we give out to customers, to reach the front desks.” That, according to Mr. Elbers, is a challenge. “We can’t have the customer knowing that there is a change of gate, or time, and the front desk being in the dark about it.”

On business, Mr. Elbers said: “A few years ago, we only flew to Delhi from Amsterdam; for a country of 1.3 billion people with its economic size and potential — just one flight a day to Delhi, was, in a way, shameful. We want to have a similar number of routes as we do to the U.S. or China. [Partner] Jet Airways has shifted its hub from Brussels to Amsterdam. It flies from Bengaluru to Amsterdam, we do Mumbai to Amsterdam. We have almost five flights a day.” He, however, declined to comment on acquisitions in India, in the context of Jet Airways battling a tough financial situation.

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