Mapping the Volume Surge: What Airlines Should Expect When The World Starts Flying Again

Peter Kurucz December 21, 2021

It’s been roughly a year (and a rough year) since lockdown was announced in London, where my family and I are currently living. During this year, travel bans have been imposed and removed with every passing season. For us – a family of frequent travelers – this meant not seeing our friends and family who are scattered across the globe between sunny Tel Aviv and busy New York.

With a newborn son, the insecurities that come with this constant juxtaposition have placed us in a very anxious position on traveling – with operational and safety concerns. Like many, we simply decided to wait until things settled down, travel restrictions are lifted, and safety is no longer a daily concern.

We’ve canceled, rescheduled, been credited and received vouchers for missed trips from various airlines. There are stories similar to mine across the world, all extremely personal but part of a wider narrative, one that has affected almost every person and consumer-facing business. It’s happened at the same time as a huge shift in how consumers choose to communicate with brands.

When things started to feel unstable, we of course chose to communicate with the airline through private messaging channels – simply because this is how we prefer to interact with everyone, including businesses. Even so, the sheer overload on traditional channels like telephony, email and even live chat was clear and felt by all, resulting in a universal transformation of digital conversations. It’s created a knock-on effect in messaging volume and consumer/brand communications.

With vaccinations being rolled out across the globe at a speedy pace, R rates in decline in most parts of the world, and a due date set on the calendar for travel to return (June 21st for us), traveling to see family is once again a possibility.


Analyzing the Airline Industry Surge

I’ll give an in-depth analysis of how the travel industry (mostly focusing on airlines) has been affected by this sudden change in behavior. Telling the story of how it affected overall conversational experiences from a volume-driven point of view – mostly focusing on the intents (conversational topics) that have been driving these conversations – and what to expect in the near future, and how as a brand you can better prepare for a second round of volume surge.

Starting with the industry level shift and surge in volume. The airline industry has been in a unique position over the past year. Unlike other sectors, who have experienced a similar volume increase, it has essentially been put on hold for an entire year.

As Covid hit, airlines were one of the first to be affected. When it all started towards the end of February last year, travel disruptions started taking effect even before any lockdowns were announced. With travelers unsure on whether flights would be canceled or go ahead as planned, we started seeing massive surges in volume.


‘Even when completely shut down, airlines have still experienced the same amount of volume as they did in normal operational times.’


Alongside retail and eCommerce, airlines is one of the top industries we support at Conversocial. Our platform gives us the tools to understand how customer conversations behave over time and the factors that affect the behavior. It put us in a position to give concrete predictions on upcoming volume surges. We were also able to advise Conversocial’s airline partners on the best tactics to employ to ensure volume surges wouldn’t disrupt their ability to maintain good consumer-to-brand communication at such a critical time.

When comparing volume, our go-to metric is always Daily Active Customers (DACs). The first visible testament to how the airline industry differed from others at the start of the pandemic can be seen below. While airlines were the first to hit in mid-March 2020, Retail and eComm soon followed. You can see clear exponential growth in DACs, but compared to the eComm and retail industries, the volume of inbound contacts quickly subsided. There’s a clear reason for this: airlines were effectively shut down and unable to operate, as opposed to eComm and retail, which have had a record-breaking year.

The interesting part? Even while being completely shut down, airlines have still experienced the same amount of volume as they did in normal operations times.

Airline customer conversations (blue line) peaked in March 2020 before returning to normal levels

Looking at these unique behaviors, we decided to go one step deeper, trying to understand what conversational topics were driving these conversations. We refer to these conversational topics as ‘intents’. Understanding consumer intents better drives brands into better consumer-facing resolutions, and rather than just reducing customers to tickets and simply managing the relationship, airlines are in a position to build a meaningful brand/consumer connection.


What was Driving the Volume?

The graph below shows how quickly one intent went on to dominate the conversational experiences for all airlines. This intent was (no surprise) ‘refund, credits and vouchers’ with another unsurprising runner-up: ‘flight cancelations’.

‘Flight cancellations’ and ‘refunds, credit and voucher’ conversations were the most popular intents

Starting with flight cancelations, this intent was mostly driven by conversations. Not necessarily asking to cancel existing flights, but more enquiring about flight cancelations. The reason why we decided to classify this intent separately to ‘flight status’ was the sheer volume. While flight status is a very common intent in a normal state (where flights are actually available without the constant fear of cancellations), flight cancelations posed a tremendous challenge for most airlines as a subset of the ‘status’ intent and as a result, we decided to treat it as its own intent.

As for ‘refunds, credits and vouchers’, this intent was driven by the intense and rapid border closures, flight bans and travel restrictions. Consumers were effectively left with no option but to cancel existing flights. In an effort to protect liquidity, most airlines took the same approach of offering credit and vouchers as a preferred solution, instead of issuing refunds. Under the impression that it was only a temporary situation, most consumers opted in favor of this solution – preferring credit and vouchers that can be redeemed once travel can safely resume (who would have thought it would take us 18 months to get there?!)


‘In an effort to protect liquidity, most airlines took the same approach of offering credit and vouchers…most consumers opted in favor of this solution…’


Is the intent level volume behavior really that different?

The simple answer is, yes. It’s wildly different from any normal intent level behavior we’ve seen in the past for this sector. It’s not about how the sudden shut down of travel affected overall volume, or about the growth of the mentioned intents, it’s also present in how the ‘normal’ state intents started behaving differently. Looking at ‘luggage’ for example – enquiries related to lost baggage – has declined massively. Especially between May and June – simply because no traveling means no lost luggage.

‘Miles, points, clubs and rewards’ is another interesting one – the initial travel restrictions period brought a very brief incline in related conversations and has subsided as travel restrictions became part of the new normal. People were not only interested in their travel plans changing, but also in what this means for their frequent traveler status.

What Can Airlines Expect as the World Begins to Travel Again?

Our prediction

Since vouchers and credits have been the single biggest driver of conversational volume, with travel restrictions starting to ease up and travel plans starting to formulate again, we predict there will be a mirror image of voucher-driven intents growing exponentially in the coming months. This time, it’s going to be around voucher redemption as opposed to requests.

The reason we believe we’re going to see this incremental growth in volume is mostly due to a single cause: the voucher redemption process is not easy or straightforward. It very often requires agent assistance, sometimes because of technical issues, and sometimes a result of a difference in voucher value compared to updated travel fares, but introducing automation to the process can vastly improve it for agents and customers.

Our advice

The upside of knowing what’s coming is that you can be prepared to handle it. Knowing what specific intent drives a high volume of conversations, pairing it with the right automation in the right channel, is always key to scale effectively while retaining a high level of efficiency, effectiveness and satisfaction.

What is the right type of automation for voucher and credit-driven conversations?

The answer all lies in the process. When a consumer experiences voucher redemption issues, the first step would be information collection. This is the repetitive part of the process we would advise our customers to automate. It’s a simple repetitive process that can utilize smart automation to help agents focus on what matters – reaching a high satisfaction resolution.

We’ve built a specific piece of functionality to solve this case specifically, called Real-Time Agent Assist.

What is Real-Time Agent Assist? It’s a tool that allows agents to pass control of the conversation to a bot platform, which collects information or completes transactions on behalf of the agents. In this situation, the ability of the bot to perform the following actions is key:

  • Taking a payment
  • Perform account verification
  • Collect information from the customer
  • Deliver information to the customer

Let’s focus on information collection, which is instrumental in getting all the relevant details before the customer speaks to an agent. It allows the agents to concentrate on resolution-driven interactions, able to focus purely on the human element required to both solve the case and build trust-driven relationships without losing efficiency.

What are the right channels?

The go-to messaging channels are the ones that offer full, in-channel resolution, have a high consumer adoption rate (i.e. where they communicate on a regular basis) and of course, are built for automation. Mostly focusing on the native messaging channels like:

These channels enable brands to build rich asynchronous experiences that have the ability to manage a consumer issue all the way to resolution. There’s no need to direct a consumer from a messaging channel into phone or email. With the additional layer of automation, it not only turns the experience into a positive one for the consumer but for the agent as well.

But it’s not just about having these channels available. If there’s no clear entry point, brands also need to find an effective way to direct consumers there. Airlines, and all consumer-facing brands for that matter, should feel comfortable promoting these channels on their ‘Contact Us’ page. These channels are the preferred communication channels for so many of us on a daily basis, so offering them as a means to interact with a brand is welcomed by consumers.


How to Leverage Data and why ‘Knowing’ is More Powerful Than ‘Thinking’

When sharing the data with one of our airline partners, advising them on the expected volume surge, their response was quite surprising. It wasn’t that they didn’t ‘think’ this was the trend, the surprise was how big an impact ‘knowing’ had on them. Seeing the numbers of the high volume intent drivers, and how they scaled over time changed something. It gave them confidence in a strategic plan that was already forming, and it enabled them to turn actionable insights into measurable outcomes.

Our best recommendation is to make sure you have access to the data. It gives you the ability to see how conversational intents move over time and invest in planning and building based on business logic and data.