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United transforms travel experience with Agent on Demand

Feature
May 06, 2022
CIO 100 Cloud Computing Digital Transformation

The airlines’ digital customer service gives travelers access to live agents via the web when flight itineraries go awry, easing uncertainty and stress while driving significant cost savings.

Jason Birnbaum, senior vice president of digital technology, United Airlines
Credit: United Airlines

Sometimes technology can feel like the enemy — a new way for vendors to pass the buck when their products or services malfunction.

It’s the chatbot that pops up when you think your identity was stolen, the digitized voice at the other end of an emergency call, that text message informing you that your flight has been cancelled with a link to, ugh, another electronic assist link.

For that reason, United Airlines developed “Agent on Demand,” an initiative that harnesses technology to deliver a live human being over United’s AWS cloud in times of trouble, earning the airlines a CIO 100 Award for innovation and leadership.

Jason Birnbaum, senior vice president of digital technology at United, launched the customer service on United’s e-Cloud with a technology partner amid the pandemic, both to accommodate social distancing and to provide an improved experience for distraught travelers. Work began in late 2020 on the service, which enables customers to connect through a live video/audio session to a United agent who can, in times of traveler uncertainty and stress, make new reservations on-the-fly, assuage worries about gate changes, and even upgrade the passenger’s seating on their next flight.

“When there’s a storm, there are never enough people. Things can happen in an airline very quickly and when that happens, it’s human nature to want speak to somebody directly — a face-to-face interaction with somebody who can help you,” Birnbaum says. “You see it at the airport. People will line up for a long while just for the opportunity to speak to somebody who can take your paper so you can help them.”

The service also enables United to maximize its workforce. Agents located at airports across the country can assist passengers at any airport over a mobile phone, and in the future, using next-generation kiosks, he says.

“Our answer is you can do that with this technology and not have to wait in line,” Birnbaum says, adding that United integrated QR coding into the system to provide smartphone users an almost instant human-to-human connection. “And it enables our staff [at many airport locations] to help those that need help right away, giving customers assistance in a way that makes them feel better right away.” 

Connecting customers and agents

United has a large IT staff, but given the circumstances of the pandemic, Birnbaum wanted to get Agent on Demand up and running quickly. After searching possible technology partners, the IT exec tapped Acquire.io, a SaaS provider that offered the kind of robust video and audio capabilities that United developers could customize to build specific features the flying public needed.

United itself is halfway through a cloud migration primarily on Amazon Web Services, with some Microsoft Azure mixed in, Birnbaum says, adding that the AWS stack offers plenty of APIs and services that enable United.com to integrate with external services, such as Acquire.io’s. The United IT staff assigned to the project — between six and 10 developers — delivered quickly. In 2021, 350,000 passengers used the service and more than that have used it to date in 2022.

Rob Bence, director of digital transformation at United, says customization for Agent on Demand goes far beyond hooking into Acquire.io’s Web Real-Time Communications (WebRTC) protocol for audio/video communications. To complete this work, United’s developers used APIs and developed algorithms on United’s e-Cloud stack, primarily based on AWS components.

“We had four weeks to stand something up so we had to move fast and that’s where the cloud integration came in” says Bence, adding that they wanted a WebRTC broker to link the passenger to the agent and not a full-blown app that anxious customers would have to download and deploy on their smartphones when in crisis.

The WebRTC protocol was integrated into the United.com reservation system’s intelligent routing components to locate information about the customer and prioritize the queue based on specific flight attributes. Algorithms and machine learning models within AWS enable the prioritization of call traffic to determine the urgency of each traveler’s needs, he adds.

“We’re ranking it and supplying some metadata over to Acquire platform so they can queue it up for us intelligently,” Bence says. “As in, which customer needs service first because one customer might miss a flight and another customer might have two hours until the next flight. We wanted to take that into consideration, rank it, and then it opens a session between the customer on their smartphone and the agent.”

The data resides in United’s reservation system on several databases, including Amazon S3 and Dynamo.

“Everything is driven from our cloud environment in which we’ve stood up this ranking and intelligent routing called from the AWS infrastructure and we’re pushing it via a web hook API infrastructure into the Acquire platform and vice versa,” Bence adds. “They expose their APIs for us to retrieve calls and provide engagement summaries afterwards … records of the engagement, the duration of it, so that we can feed it into our analytics reporting.”

Customer service in the cloud

Of course, peak use of Agent on Demand occurs during storms or mechanical issues that result in delays or the need to switch to a different aircraft. The elasticity of the cloud is an ideal fit for this type of customer service, not only in terms of scalability but also reach.

“Before, passengers were handcuffed,” Bence says. “Now we have people all over the globe, so instead of waiting hours in lines, they only have to wait for a few minutes. They open their smartphones, and boom, three minutes later their situation is fixed, and they may never have had to leave the club or Starbucks.”

Agent on Demand began as a test scenario with fewer than 10 customer service agents from a single airport and has grown into a team of more than 2,000 specifically trained representatives operating at more than 40 stations nationally. According to United’s 2021 analysis, Agent on Demand is now projected to drive a labor cost savings of between $182 million and $212 million in 2022.

United also designed a special user interface that teaches agents how to use the system in 15 minutes, providing a language translation component as well.

Bence says United has a “very tight relationship” with Acquire.io to make the system work seamlessly. Acquire.io, which was founded in 2017, has roughly 120 employees, and it works with Elevate in the financial services industry and with Audi and Samsung on the retail side, according to Acquire.io CEO Amrit Dhangal.

United now employs roughly seven IT pros to maintain and grow the system, Bence says, with plans to extend the Agent on Demand service to its baggage services and other needs as they arise. Meanwhile, with peak summer travel approaching, Agent on Demand will soon be battle-tested like never before. Birnbaum and Bence, however, are confident the service will handle all needs.

“We’re about to go into a very busy summer,” Bence says. “Our job is to make sure the technology is reliable and that our customers know it exists.”