American Airlines makes major change passengers won't like

Frequent airline fliers have a number of expectations when it comes to comfort and ease of travel.

In recent developments, American Airlines  (AAL)  and other carriers are beginning to change one passenger experience that has some people nervous.

Related: Southwest Airlines offers boarding option many passengers love

Travelers have come to appreciate the efficiency that much new technology can bring to the flying experience.

Booking, selecting seats and checking in online and on apps saves time and provides clarity about what passengers need to do — and where they need to go — at the airport before they even get there.

Airline customer service technology, on the other hand, has been a matter of some frustration in the travel industry during the recent past.

Famously, during the 2022 winter holiday travel season, Southwest Airlines  (LUV)  experienced operational failures that led to the cancellation of 16,900 flights and stranded two million passengers, according to the Department of Transportation.

At the time, Southwest's customer service operations were overwhelmed. The carrier failed to provide timely communication, support and guidance to affected passengers, causing critical breakdowns and separating travelers from their luggage for extended periods of time.

American Airlines customer service layoffs cause worries

In late January 2024, American Airlines consolidated its customer service units, putting employees from multiple teams into one group.

In the process, the airline laid off 335 employees in Phoenix and 321 in Dallas.

American had self-service tools, which it hoped would lower the number of instances where passengers needed to contact customer service support.

These included kiosks at airports for its customers to request changes in flights and standby status, confirm flight changes, purchase upgrades and buy AAdvantage miles.

Some were skeptical the staff shakeup would lead to improvements, suggesting that a better way to handle it might have been to improve the service first rather than starting with layoffs.

An American Airlines jet is seen flying above an ocean. The airline is one of many using technology to make changes to its customer service experience.

Shutterstock

The adoption of customer service AI

In the near future, it's likely that customer service agents will be largely replaced by artificial intelligence (AI) technology that handles most customer requests.

"Some businesses, including airlines, will promote human customer service as a premium experience (although eventually, perhaps, AI will be better — but at least initially this will be seen as a premium)," wrote Gary Leff of View From the Wing on Feb. 28. "And perhaps we'll see airlines offering live human telephone service as an elite benefit."

"For now it's likely that AI will handle simple, factual requests and enter conversations to drill down into details about policy," Leff continued. "How much baggage can I check and at what cost? Is my flight on time? Do I need to re-confirm my flight? I heard the frequent flyer program is changing, how does that affect me (cue 'talking points')?"

Many simple air travel questions are asked by passengers over the phone to customer service agents, and those could be handled by AI.

But Leff was skeptical American's move was the right approach.

"That American is moving to lay off call center agents without the highest-level AI possible makes me less confident that AI's handling the lowest level of requests will free up agents to deal with customers more quickly," he wrote.

"At the current rate of advancement we can expect improvements and further deployment of the technology and more inquiries to be dealt with via AI rather than human customer service," he added.

At the time of publishing, American Airlines has not responded to a request for comment.

Related: Veteran fund manager picks favorite stocks for 2024


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