Adding the texting and messaging platform isn’t just a bid to appeal to Millennials; it’s part of a broader strategy to burnish Spirit Airlines’ image as offering seamless, personalized, and ‘high-quality’ customer experience, said President & CEO Ted Christie.

Winning customers with high-ranking on-time performance and low costs is not enough for Spirit Airlines; the Miramar, Florida-based carrier wants to be widely acknowledged for offering a high-quality experience and clearer communication with the people who book flights with them.

That was the theme of a Q&A with Spirit President & CEO Ted Christie at Boyd IAFS in Las Vegas on Monday, when he unveiled that starting in September, the airline would use WhatsApp, the Facebook-owned messaging platform, to create a direct line between consumers and customer service representatives.

Aiming For The Best Of Human And Bot Communication

The technology, powered by New York-based conversational commerce solutions startup LivePerson, will also send Spirit’s customers automated responses using artificial intelligence-based chatbot function.  Spirit’s “new, direct line of communication” will be connected to the airline’s English and Spanish-speaking Guest Relations and Reservations teams and to “millions of Spirit Guests in the United States, the Caribbean, and Latin America, who already use WhatsApp every day.”

While chatbots have become a fairly ubiquitous customer service tool both on desktop and smartphones, Spirit emphasizes that customers will always have the option of turning to a “real human being” for questions and issues as opposed to being locked into a bot conversation.

Redefining Brand Loyalty

During his Boyd IAFS appearance, Christie put the announcement into a wider context of change at the airline that has been in the works for some time.

For example, Spirit’s “invest in our guest” initiative was initially about delivering an on-time product, Christie said. “But then we decided to add more seamless, passenger-friendly tech as well. We’ll also be revamping our loyalty program, investing in better in-flight wifi, and an enhanced comfort in our cabins.”

The goal is to build greater brand loyalty, something Christie said “is essential for a low-cost carrier.” It used to be that price alone was enough to define success for an ULCC, as Spirit is regarded. But with consumer demands rising, and the ability for online travel agents and booking engines to drive consumers to the cheapest deal in the moment, airlines like Spirit know they have to compete on many other fronts.

“We need to redesign loyalty into something that is associated with a high-quality carrier as opposed to the identity of a lower priced airline,” Christie said. “Loyalty for us not going to look like it does for a legacy carrier. But we can define it in our own way.”

In response to an audience question from Jason Kelly, CEO of Kambr Inc. [Kambr Media’s parent company] about customer segmentation and customization/personalization, Christie said that all the focus on loyalty, brand identity, and communication are all improvements that dovetail and reinforce strengths that have been in the works for a while.

“We’ve invested a lot in technology over the last seven years,” Christie said. “While we’re behind a ‘traditional e-tailer’ in that process, that’s probably true for much of the industry, I think we’re making considerable headway. We now have a completely redesigned website. It will allow us to tag and do more multivariant testing than we’ve been able to do before. That will assist in the customization and personalizing merchandising. There is big upside in ancillaries. We know people value these products, they buy them intentionally. But sometimes we can package them in ways that will help people realize even more value. We’re very close to making those types of strides in the next six months.”

Spirit's WhatsApp messaging platform is powered by NYC startup LivePerson. Travlers can choose to interact with an actual human customer representative or a chatbot.

Finding The Right Role For AI

When it comes to Spirit’s ambitions will also rely on how to balance new technologies, consumers’ conflicting demands for immediate and authentic communications, the work with LivePerson on messaging represents a perfect test for how those other areas can be successful.

These new “guest solutions,” as Spirit calls the WhatsApp connection, will employ LivePerson’s new AI-powered Maven Assist tool. That program recommends the “best” next actions for human agents to take, including prompting users with content or suggesting virtual assistants capable of responding to a Guest’s intent.

 “We’re excited to enable this new connection for America’s fastest growing airline, providing a powerful, engaging way for Guests to connect with Spirit on their own time”, said Manlio Carrelli, EVP, Enterprise Business Group at LivePerson. “Guests want to be able to ask questions, add products, and get immediate help without waiting, and with Spirit we’re making it possible for them to do so in the messaging channels they prefer.”

“We launched this service to better connect with our Guests, both domestically and abroad, as many have told us that they would rather communicate on a familiar and convenient service like WhatsApp,” added Bobby Schroeter, VP of Sales & Marketing at Spirit Airlines. “We know WhatsApp is incredibly popular in the United States, but also in the more than two dozen destinations we serve in the Caribbean and Latin America. From travel updates to adding a bag to your reservation, this new messaging service allows Guests to communicate with us in English and Spanish and to opt in to WhatsApp messaging. It is all part of our goal to elevate and improve our Guest experience.”