As data and technology become increasingly important in travel, customer expectations are rapidly changing, and travelers are demanding a more seamless experience and more proactive care. Senior executives from some of the world’s leading airlines say their top business challenge is determining how they can differentiate more effectively and provide a higher level of service to their most valued travelers.
In order to respond to these changing traveler expectations, airlines should take a more strategic approach to partnerships. In the coming years, it will be essential for airlines to find new ways to collaborate with other industry players and harness the potential of the big data available in travel.
Furthermore, industry collaborations will need to go beyond simple bilateral partnerships. Airlines should focus their efforts on increasing their shared innovation and cross-industry alliances to accelerate technology development and take critical steps toward solving the industry’s most complex problems. A good problem to start with is improving the management of policy exception waivers within travel management companies (TMCs).
TMCs struggle to match trips to waivers
Examining how TMCs and airlines currently manage changes to itineraries during irregular operations has revealed a key way they can work with TMCs to provide better service to their shared customers.
Airlines regularly issue policy exception waivers to help alleviate the effects of large-scale disruptions on their most profitable travelers—business travelers, whose travel is often managed by a TMC. When airlines issue waivers, they are usually delivered to TMCs via email. Since agents balance several priorities throughout the day, they are already inundated with emails–especially during a disruption–and agents lose valuable time searching their inboxes or airline websites for waiver information.
This sounds like a TMC problem, right? Well, not exactly.
With no automated way to match a traveler to a waiver, this process of collecting waivers and matching them to a TMC’s trips is not only time-consuming for the TMC, but it also creates inefficiencies for the airlines and frustrates the most valuable travelers. Fortunately, there is a better way to handle these policy exception waivers.
Major airlines are partnering with FlightStats to deliver waivers through a FlightStats-supplied tool that is available to airlines without cost. The tool automatically creates the structured waiver data that drives FlightStats’ proprietary trip monitoring engine, which matches the waivers to trips.
Airlines participating in the FlightStats Travel Waiver Services program provide waiver data, and we apply our proven trip monitor to match the waivers to trips managed by many of the world’s leading TMCs. Whenever participating airlines issue a new or updated waiver, TMCs subscribing to this service are automatically informed of all their trips that match with the waiver. As a result, TMCs have waiver information at their fingertips, and they are better equipped to serve an airline’s highest value customers.
There are three key benefits to airlines from improving their waiver process:
1. Reduce support costs
With the constant pressure to control costs, TMC agents represent free labor for an airline when customers need help with their flights, whether as the result of a schedule change or disruption. Working more closely with TMCs has the potential to significantly improve service to an airline’s highest value customers while reducing costs for airline call center and customer support staff at the same time. Creating a collaborative and automated process for handling policy exception waivers is one of the first steps toward achieving these results.
With current manual email-driven processes, waivers often create more work for airline call centers. Lack of a standardized waiver format and fear of debit memos motivate TMC agents to call the airline for clarification or help. As a result, more work is created for the airlines and TMC when both can least afford it.
The bottom line: When airlines support TMCs waiver automation, the TMCs call the airline less and serve travelers better.
2. Start re-accommodation immediately
Once a disruption begins to affect travelers, it’s often too late to prioritize service to an airline’s most valuable customers. Available seats quickly disappear, and customer service agents are at the mercy of the call center queue or customer service line. Wouldn’t it be nice if TMCs could start re-accommodating an airline’s most valuable travelers even before the actual disruption starts while there are still plenty of seats available on more flights?
When a waiver is generated, the airline operations center releases it internally first, sending it to a variety of groups–including the sales support team, who typically create the email that is sent to the TMC community and update information on the airline’s website. Of course, many of these internal teams don’t work 24×7 as the operations teams do, so there may be many hours of latency between the decision to issue a waiver and the distribution of the email to TMCs.
For example, if the airline operations center creates a waiver at 10:00 p.m. when the sales support team has already gone home for the night, the waiver information may not get to TMCs until the following morning. That 11-hour window could allow a TMC to begin communicating with high-value travelers and re-accommodating them when there are more options and seats available.
Airlines partnering with FlightStats get waiver information out to the TMCs more quickly, and TMCs get fully automated trip matching that allows them to efficiently apply the waivers and begin re-accommodating travelers sometimes hours in advance of others.
3. Take care of high-value travelers first
The fact that waiver management is so manual and cumbersome today prevents many TMCs from pursuing opportunities to proactively serve their travelers and re-accommodate them in advance of a disruption. As a result, high-value business travelers may not get the “white glove” service that both airlines and TMCs strive to deliver, and this is particularly the case when airlines are experiencing high load factors where there are few seats available for re-accommodating disrupted travelers.
Consider this scenario: When an airline cancels a flight, they could have 150 passengers to re-accommodate. The airline can scatter those people over the empty seats on other flights, but the next available flight, or perhaps an earlier flight, will be the most desirable for travelers because it results in minimal disruption. High load factors could mean that there are very few empty seats on the most desirable flights.
Of course, many airlines already begin to re-accommodate passengers as soon as they become aware of a disruption. However, it is more likely that their re-accommodation efforts often start when the actual disruption occurs, instead of hours or even days earlier when a waiver was issued. By that time, many of the best flight alternatives are already gone, and even automated re-accommodation systems may leave a high-value business traveler needing further assistance.
When the traveler calls their TMC for help, they are usually unaware of the airline’s re-accommodation, since those changes often don’t get communicated back to the TMC. So not only is the TMC unable to provide the kind of “white glove” service they want to for a high-value traveler, but they also end up re-directing the traveler back to the airline’s call center, or they call the airline on the traveler’s behalf. Either way, this inefficient interaction costs both the TMC and the airline valuable time and money and erodes the traveler’s perception of both the airline and the TMC.
If airlines get their waivers out to the TMCs in a more timely fashion, TMC agents can begin contacting travelers and re-accommodate the highest value travelers while there is still plenty of inventory available. The airline and TMC both benefit from a happy business traveler, and the airline costs are reduced by enabling the TMC to handle their travelers efficiently without calling the airline.
Airlines can step up in a big way
More and more airlines are recognizing the value of collaborating with TMCs to provide excellent service to corporate travelers, and FlightStats is enabling a key part of that collaboration with our new Travel Waiver Services system. Four major U.S. airlines are providing us with waiver data, including United, American, Delta, and Alaska, with more to come.
United took their involvement with the service even further by using the FlightStats Airline waiver tool that creates structured waiver data, which improves the timeliness and reliability of the trip-to-waiver matching and enables TMCs to drive even more automation.
“We are committed to connecting people to the moments that matter most,” said Jake Cefolia, United’s vice president of Americas Sales. “The new FlightStats service empowers travel agents with the automation and flexibility they need to quickly serve our mutual customers while minimizing some of the stress associated with irregular operations.”
Contact a FlightStats representative to learn more about our Travel Waiver Services.