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Current as of 28/04/17 09:00AM NZST
Aviation, tourism and energy writer for the Business Herald

This is your robot speaking - Air New Zealand's new way to help passengers

Air New Zealand is introducing a chatbot, the airline's first foray into artificial intelligence.
Air New Zealand is introducing a chatbot, the airline's first foray into artificial intelligence.

Air New Zealand is dipping its toes into artificial intelligence, launching a customer service chatbot that helps passengers with common queries.

The airline hopes Oscar, full name Bravo Oscar Tango, will become a "virtual travel assistant", helping passengers through every step of their journey.

Oscar will initially help customers with commonly asked queries, which Air New Zealand says will save them time and offer a more personalised experience than searching a traditional Frequently Asked Questions section online.

As with other artificial intelligence (AI) technology, Oscar will learn based on the conversations - verbal and text - people have with him, becoming more user-friendly and helpful the more he interacts.

Air New Zealand chief digital officer Avi Golan said Oscar had been launched as a beta or early stage product allowing customers to play an active role in training him.

Oscar can handle about 5000 different questions but was still a work in progress.

"This is a new approach for us, getting Oscar out fast and in the early development stages so that we can build and co-create with our customers. Given Oscar learns natural language it makes sense he learns directly from our customers the types of information they want to know and the language they use, rather than airline jargon."

Golan, who has a background in Silicon Valley, including working for Google, said the world's best digital companies foster a culture of customer-led design and collaboration. For the airline to meet its big digital ambitions it must embed this culture of thinking, acting and doing as leading digital companies do.

Air NZ's new chatbot called Oscar
Air NZ's new chatbot called Oscar

Oscar has initially been launched as a help chatbot to assist with Air New Zealand Lounge, Airpoints and baggage queries but the airline hopes to integrate it with the Air New Zealand Mobile app and with other chat platforms and in-home digital assistants.

"Over time we want Oscar to become a virtual travel assistant helping customers across every stage of the journey, with the ability to recognise who you are, inform you about your flights, make or change a booking, select seats, check you in, and offer to help sort you a taxi to the airport," Golan said.

''Airlines can keep transforming from a transactional organisation to something that thinks end to end about your experience,'' he said.

The technology was off the shelf and a team of around half a dozen people developed it at the airline. Other companies use chatbots for customer service but they are not widely used in the airline industry, Golan said.

KLM was one of the first to use a chatbot, with mixed success after raising expectations of its capabilities too high.

Customers with queries about Airpoints, baggage or Air New Zealand lounges can put Oscar to the test. The chatbot is in the Help & Contact section of the airline's New Zealand website.

- NZ Herald

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