As another wave of protests affect Hong Kong Airport following clashes that caused hundreds of flight cancellations last month, airport staff and airline crew are working hard to keep operations running.

Although these politically motivated protests are not usually part of Cathay Pacific’s disruption management programme, with 31 typhoons alone to manage 2018, disruption is an issue that the airline is experienced at dealing with.

Last year, when Super Typhoon Mangkhut – the strongest typhoon of the year – whipped up 100mph winds and 11ft waves, Hong Kong Airport was impacted more than usual. The typhoon season runs roughly from May to October in Hong Kong – Mangkhut arrived in September, and at times spanned a vast 550 miles.

“When the typhoon hit Hong Kong, the bottom of it was still in the Philippines,” explained Josh Rogers, Cathay Pacific’s head of customer experience for airports at the Amadeus Airline Executive Summit (AES 2019), which took place in Istanbul in June 2019.

Rogers describes Hong Kong Airport’s particular weather disruption problem as “a yearly business challenge we don’t have any control over”.

The cost of disruption

The South China Morning Post reported that Hong Kong’s insurance claims overall could reach around US$930m (HK$7.3bn).

Amadeus states in its Airline Disruption Management whitepaper that the estimated cost of disruption to airlines is 8% of airline revenue, or US$60bn worldwide. With 400 Cathay Pacific flights coming in and out of the airport every day, each time the airline cancels a flight it affects 100,000 customers.

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“Three years ago when we had a disruption, we would have to rebook customer by customer.”

Last year Cathay Pacific took more proactive measures to help manage the passenger experience at Hong Kong airport during weather disruptions. As part of a more customer-centric approach to improve the passenger rebooking aspect of the disruption management response, it combined three tools: Amadeus Passenger Recovery technology, Accenture’s Rebooking Experience and 15below’s customer communication.

Together they address the pain points a customer feels during a disruption and optimises the passenger rebooking service that the airline provides.

“Three years ago when we had a disruption, we would have to rebook customer by customer,” Rogers explains. “We would pull up one booking reservation, rebook that one, pull up the next, and so on. So when we closed the hub for 24 hours, which affected around 100,000 customers, it took us days, even up to a week, to rebook them, and we didn’t meet our customers’ expectations, obviously.”

Passenger rebooking: from one week to ten minutes

Rogers says that customers don’t expect to wait for 24 hours to find out what flight they have been rebooked on any more. “Customers are expecting that almost instantly within an hour or two,” he says. “We knew we had to get much more agile and responsive so that we’re able to give our customers that reassurance that they expect from us.”

Amadeus’s Passenger Recovery tool analyses the impact of multiple flight disruptions and optimises the rebooking process. It can handle more than 50 flights and 8,000 passengers in 40 minutes. Loyalty, brand protection and process streamlining are three of the key benefits resulting from the implementation of this system.

“Amadeus’s Passenger Recovery can handle more than 50 flights and 8,000 passengers in 40 minutes.”

“It allows us to take the end-to-end journey of every single customer on that flight and look for alternative flights according to a set of rules we’ve fed into to the system,” explains Rogers. Once a new journey has been accepted by the customer, it is picked up by the communications tool from 15below and the new flight details are sent out to the customer.

“When there is good availability, and it isn’t a complex itinerary, it allows us to take 400 people at a time and rebook them on to new flights in about ten minutes,” says Rogers.

While the solution allows the airline to react more effectively to disruption, by partnering with Accenture on the creation of two chatbots, Cathay Pacific can put the customer in control of rebooking ahead of the actual disruption. By viewing the impact of the disrupted journey through the eyes of their customers they were able to come up with a solution that fed into the customers’ desire for autonomy and control over their journey.

Chatbots give control back to customers

“Our customers tell us they want to self-help – they don’t always want to speak to someone on the phone, they want the flexibility go control their own journey,” says Rogers. “So rather than go through the website to ‘manage my booking’ we built a chat bot that would allow the customer to self-rebook.”

The airline is usually aware that a typhoon is coming 12-18 hours in advance through the Hong Kong Meteorological Office.

Whereas before a ticketing waiver would have been sent to travel agents, the website and call centres, so if customers contacted them to change their flight the approval was there, now the airline takes a more proactive approach. Customers are sent the dynamic waiver and advised that it is in place so that they can plan ahead – when they know a typhoon is coming in, they are informed about the protection flight.

“The airline is usually aware that a typhoon is coming 12-18 hours in advance.”

“The customer will get an email notification and clicking will bring them to a chatbot,” explained Annie Ling, head of customer experience – digital, at Cathay Pacific during the presentation at AES 2019. “In four simple steps they are able to book again on their preferred flight.”

Rogers says that there are two chatbots. One for customers to help themselves reprotect before the actual disruption has happened. The second comes into play once the disruption has occurred and Passenger Recovery has rebooked flights that the customer wishes to change.

“They can then go into this second chatbot and rebook based on certain windows and times we give them,” he says.

Although these solutions are new to the Cathay Pacific team – they only started using the rebooking tool late last year and the chatbots have been on operation only over the last few months – customers have reacted positively. Rogers hopes that once the typhoon season is over that by the start of 2020 there will be plenty of good news stories to tell.

“It is not good for the customer experience to have those lines, not good for the brand or the airport authority,” he says.

The future: seamless passenger rebooking at 37,000ft

Rogers’ plan is to finely streamline the operation throughout the journey and hopes that, as Cathay Pacific is fitting their long-haul aircraft with Wi-Fi, in the future passenger rebooking could happen while the customer is still in the air.

“To hub carriers, that connection and transfer experience is just so important.”

“Say a flight has left New York and is on its way to Hong Kong, but is three hours late due to snow in New York – we know we’ve got 300 people misconnecting off that aeroplane and we can use Passenger Recovery to rebook all those people in ten minutes,” he explains. “We can push them an SMS or an email to send them the details, but what’s to say the customer, who is at 37,0000ft, can’t connect to the inflight Wi-Fi, get those details, check in online and get a new boarding pass.”

The customer wouldn’t need to wait in any lines at the airport; they could go straight through security and on to the departure lounge.

“To hub carriers like us, that connection and transfer experience is just so important and the technology is there,” says Rogers. “Our solution and our products have to look after the heart and the mind of the customer – that is where the design-thinking approach helps us.” 

Unrest at Hong Kong Airport

As this article was being written, pro-democracy demonstrators have been protesting in Hong Kong, including at the airport. The weeks of unrest are the result of protestors’ belief that the Chinese authorities are edging towards the rescindment of Hong Kong’s political autonomy, despite a “one country, two systems” principle that Beijing agreed to keep for 50 years following the handover in 1997.

“The Airport Authority Hong Kong (AA) said it had obtained a High Court order to restrain those obstructing the use of the airport.”

At the time this article was published, Cathay had not replied to a request for comment on the role its recovery tools have played flight re-bookings during the protests. However, the Airport Authority Hong Kong (AA) said it had obtained a High Court order to restrain those obstructing the use of Hong Kong International Airport (HKIA).

“Any person who neglects to abide by or neglects to follow the interim injunction order may be prosecuted for contempt of court, and is liable to imprisonment or a fine,” said a spokesperson at the Airport Authority Hong Kong.

“Until further notice, only bona fide passengers with a valid air ticket or boarding pass for a flight in the next 24 hours and a valid travel document will be allowed to enter the terminal buildings. Passengers are reminded to arrive at the airport three hours before their departure time for relevant checks at the designated access control checkpoints.”