Long, long ago, people booked flights through travel agents. Yes, by talking to human beings. In shops. On the high street.
It seems like another world now that the norm is browsing websites and apps for the best offers.
The new digital way is undoubtedly convenient and speedy. But is it perfect? Not really. Some customers love the user experience of search terms, menu items and click-to-buy buttons. But others can find it impersonal and counter-intuitive.
Is there an alternative? Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) believes so – and calls its new option Turi.
Turi is a chatbot, which SAS announced in 2017. The aim is to give travellers a tool that wraps the convenience of digital inside a friendly conversational user interface.
Here’s how it works: customers add Turi as a contact inside a messaging platform they already use. They can then ask any question and Turi will respond in conversation. Crucially, because Turi knows a lot about the customer, such as travelling preferences and payment details, it can jump to relevant search results and process bookings extremely quickly.
“Turi could be could be the travel agent of the future,” Nässén says, “because the customer may not want to talk to a person but they do want a personalized offering throughout the journey.”
It’s unsurprising that SAS should be early into this new thinking around the digital interface. In 2008, it was among the first airlines to launch an AI-based live chat assistant on its website (called Eva). More broadly, the company has pursued a digital strategy that has transformed the booking and travel experience of its 29 million annual customers.
This process actually sprang from adversity. In 2012, SAS was close to bankruptcy. It used the crisis to devise a new strategy around convenience and loyalty, rather than cost cutting.
At the heart of this approach is SAS’s award-winning mobile app. It is still the most downloaded travel app in Scandinavia and, according to Nässén, it helps SAS stay close to the customer at every step of the journey – from booking flights to receiving push notification alerts about gates and departure times.
“Having a personalized offering is key,” she says. “We want to go towards a one-to-one offering and the driver for that is mobile. So the SAS app is primary for us. We now have one million kroner a month in booked revenue through the app and more than 50 percent of customers using it for airport check-in.”
Of course, the app succeeds by giving customers the chance to populate it with personal details. This makes the experience faster and more personal.
But SAS uses this kind of big data/personal profiling in other ways too. For example, it equips its cabin crew with iPads that provide information on all flyers. Staff can use this to address individual needs. And now SAS is exploring wider applications of the technology.
Nässén explains: “If we have lost someone’s luggage, we can we can get the hotel details from the customer and make sure we send it on. It’s something we’re looking at and it’s based around big data and having a personalized offering to the customer.”
In fact, this is indicative of SAS’s wider ambitions for digital. The company recently launched an innovation lab to explore radical new ideas. For example, it developed a prototype ‘Electronic Bag Tag’ that would replace the paper version that typically slows down the check in process.
It has also experimented with rings and wristbands that can be used to pass through security, access lounges or board a plane.
This all reflects SAS’s long term ambition to be more than a travel brand. In fact, it’s CEO Eiving Roald has even spoken about frequent flyers being able to buy their groceries through the SAS app.
Nässén says: “Yes, we are an airline but we want to make life easier for the frequent Scandinavian traveller. We want to help them save time in travel but also outside it. Based on data we can expand our offering to launch new products outside the travel chain.”