When you’re an airline, you never can have too many platforms driving travelers to book. This is the thinking behind the latest offering from Icelandair: a “Messenger Bot” that allows travelers to search and book flights or stopovers (for up to seven nights) on Icelandair through Facebook Messenger.
The service, which debuted last week, requires no additional downloads, plugins, or extensions. It does, however, require you to click through to a secure page on the airline’s website to finalize bookings.
As the name of the service indicates, the entire transaction is managed by an autonomous program specifically designed and programmed to interact with customers (that’s the “bot” part). Travelers can choose to chat with a living person at any point along the way, although according to Icelandair’s own website, it can take up to an hour or more for customer service representatives to respond.
To begin the booking process, travelers start a conversation with @icelandair in Facebook Messenger or visit m.me/icelandair in any web browser. From there, customers simply type “book a flight” or “book a stopover.”
The bot manages the interaction from that point forward, asking a series of questions about where and when the customer wants to travel.
It’s important that travelers respond to these questions in precisely the format the bot requests; a recent article on Skift noted that the system will not accept responses that are not in the correct format and that certain formats aren’t “always intuitive.”
With most queries, the bot informs users what format it requires—travelers just need to pay attention.
Currently the bot only responds to queries in English and is equipped solely to book flights or stopovers. If a traveler needs to make changes to an existing booking, she or he must request an agent.
Despite these obvious shortcomings, the fact that Massachusetts-based Icelandair is embracing in-Messenger booking is a big deal. Though it’s not the first airline to engage with customers on that platform—that distinction goes to KLM—Icelandair is the first carrier to allow customers to book there. Other brands that are blazing trails with customer service applications in the Messenger platform include Hyatt Hotels, Kayak, Expedia, and Cheapflights.
“We know what platforms our customers use and want to embrace new ways to communicate and offer valuable interactions with them in that space,” said Guðmundur Óskarsson, Icelandair’s director of marketing and business development. “We want to constantly improve the travel ecosystem for consumers, starting from the very beginning of their booking experience.”
Icelandair’s Messenger Bot was developed by Travelaer, a company that specializes in e-commerce booking software. The project’s second phase, additional functionality for enhancing the user experience, is in development now and should be rolled out by the end of the year.
Matt Villano is a freelance writer and editor based in Healdsburg, California. In nearly 20 years as a full-time freelancer, he has covered travel for publications including TIME, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, Sunset, Backpacker, Entrepreneur, and more. He contributes to the Expedia Viewfinder blog and writes a monthly food column for Islands magazine. Villano also serves on the board of the Family Travel Association and blogs about family travel at Wandering Pod. Learn more about him at Whalehead.com