How do I make a special meal request?

How do I split a passenger name record?

Do you have a boyfriend?

It might seem that one of those things is not like the others, but they are all questions that travel advisors have asked Amanda, Amadeus’ agent-facing chatbot designed to save time and increase efficiency for retail sellers. 

Joerg Schuler, Amadeus’ vice president of travel channels customer service, said Amanda is part of the company’s overall approach to serving advisors.

“We want to automate the predictable so we can humanize the exceptional,” Schuler said. “It sounds a bit theoretical, but I think it’s very valuable in everything that we’re doing around the chatbot Amanda.”

Schuler estimated that about three-quarters of the questions travel advisors ask when contacting Amadeus support centers are simple how-to questions, such as requesting a wheelchair from an airline. 

Advisors could use Amadeus’ self-service portal, which features content on how to operate with the GDS. But Amanda is another way of efficiently asking a question, as the chatbot is accessed within its Live Travel Space GDS environment. It gets about 1,000 daily questions, or some 120 conversations per hour.

Amanda has her benefits, especially that she’s literally always working. She can answer 100% of the top 100 questions advisors ask (she remains professional about the joke questions, like whether or not she has a boyfriend, Amadeus said). According to Schuler, agents have reported being satisfied with Amanda’s answers around 80% of the time. When they aren’t satisfied, which happens with more complex or specific questions, they are transferred to a human customer service agent.

The chatbot has been around since late 2017. It was programmed to answer mostly simple questions, Schuler said, with human agents tweaking it to improve its rate of correct answers.

Now, though, Amadeus has begun to work with IBM Watson to make Amanda smarter by harnessing artificial intelligence technology such as machine learning.

With Watson technology, Schuler said, Amadeus is working to help Amanda learn more over time automatically and handle more complex cases. That work is in its early stages.

With Amanda and other customer service efforts, such as better qualifying agents who call service centers to steer them to the right person faster, Schuler said Amadeus is aiming to answer the question, “How can technology help us to be more efficient and to drive the satisfaction of the customers up?”

Amadeus is the only GDS to offer a travel agent-facing chatbot. But the technology is also on the minds of its main competitors, Sabre and Travelport.

Simon Ferguson, Travelport’s president and managing director of the Americas, said the company is experimenting with an agent-facing chatbot dubbed Theresa, which is in the concept phase. (As Ferguson pointed out, many chatbots have female names, something he called “a sort of digital chauvinism.”)

“We definitely see the opportunity for chatbots to come in and automate parts of the travel agent workflow that are time-consuming, are repetitive and really can take what may be a good travel seller away from what they do best,” he said.

Ferguson said he thinks the human touch will still be important in answering advisors’ questions, because as complexity increases, so, too, does the need for human intervention. Still, chatbots could be of use in certain cases.

“We very much see chatbots doing those bits of work which take travel agent consultants and support staff time to do, but they’re not really high value,” he said. 

Dan Cohn, principal applications architect at Sabre Labs, said the GDS in recent years has run pilot tests of chatbots with some travel management companies (TMCs), giving them the option to offer a chatbot to answer travelers’ questions. The company has also created prototypes on the supplier side, such as chatbots for airlines and flight crews.

With the TMC chatbots, a virtual assistant could field questions before, during and after a trip, keeping human agents from having to deal with simple requests. The bot was designed to answer general questions about a trip, send a copy of the itinerary, complete flight exchanges, select or change seats or request a special meal.

That pilot ran with two TMCs and internally with Sabre’s employees in North America. When it ended, instead of introducing a chatbot product, Cohn said, Sabre directed its attention to the platform that powers the chatbot and how to apply its automation technology to other aspects of the GDS and the services it provides.

However, he said, an agent-facing chatbot is not off the table. Sabre has an online system for agents, Format Finder, which helps advisors easily access the information necessary to use the GDS.

“Providing a chat interface on top of that could still be a potential opportunity,” Cohn said.

One challenge is that as digital assistants such as chatbots, Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri have become more mainstream, there is evidence that public trust in the assistants -- and their ability to keep users’ data private -- has eroded. 

Amadeus has taken steps to ensure that data is not compromised, Schuler said. It collects and stores a minimal amount of information about the questions Amanda is asked. The data is encrypted and used only to improve the product. It can’t be used to identify or contact a person.

Chatbot technology continues to evolve. Cohn said it has gone a bit slower than predicted a few years ago, but he and others like Ferguson recognize its potential.

“It is early days, but I do think that chatbots will be able to handle more sophisticated queries as time goes on,” Ferguson said.

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