[>talktech] China Eastern Chatbot Flight Takes Off: Will “XiaoIce” Raise In-Flight Services to Unprecedented Levels?

By Kai-Chin Shih/ 24 JAN 2015/ TOKYOJAPANtalkairlines.wordpress.com

Ever gotten bored on a flight and wished to chat with someone? Well say hello to “CE XiaoIce (東航小冰)”, the intelligent personal assistant designed by Microsoft for China Eastern Airlines customers! This latest initiative by the Chinese carrier marks the entering of artificial intelligence into air traveling. XiaoIce will connect customers to not only the internet but also the crew, other passengers on the flight, and friends on the ground.

China Eastern crew teaching passengers how to use XiaoIce

China Eastern crew teaching passengers how to use XiaoIce (Source: HKSilicon.com)

XIAOICE: THE CHATBOT THAT PUTS “PERSONAL” INTO INTELLIGENT PERSONAL ASSISTANTS

“XiaoIce”, translated as “Little Ice”, is an intelligent personal assistant (IPA) launched by Microsoft in 2014. IPAs are software programs that can complete tasks assigned by the user or provide answers to users’ questions. Currently, the most widely known IPA is Siri by Apple, with which one can use his/her voice to send messages, make calls and obtain answers to simple questions, such as those related to the weather and historical facts, on their smart devices. Microsoft also has its own IPAs, namely Cortana and XiaoIce. While Cortana provides functions similar to that of Siri and can only be accessed through Windows smart devices, XiaoIce, which is built to be used on social media sites such as Sina Webo, can be used virtually anywhere. Moreover, XiaoIce learns from not only past conversations with the user but also those from all around China. With these resources, it can provide extremely lifelike conversations that fit perfectly with the local culture. Instead of giving simple responses, it interacts with users in a humorous and relaxing manner. The chatting experience, therefore, can be extremely fun and interesting. As described by Bing, XiaoIce, like a friend, can carry on extended conversations that can reach hundreds of exchanges in length.

The logo of XiaoIce resembles a popsicle.

The logo of XiaoIce resembles a popsicle.

CE XIAOICE: TRANSCENDING THE LEVELS OF AIRLINE SERVICES

The “XiaoIce” designed specially for China Eastern is truly noteworthy. Prior to boarding, it provides flyers with updated flight information, boarding notifications, and the ability to customize in-flight services, such as pre-ordering meals and drinks. The airline, on the other hand, can obtain information from the XiaoIce Systems to understand passengers’ preferences and health conditions in order to provide more sophisticated services.

After boarding a plane equipped with in-flight Wi-Fi, passengers can, through personal tablets or laptops (mobile phones are banned on Chinese aircraft), use XiaoIce to socialize with other passengers, contact the crew or people on the ground, or send post-arrival pick-up reminders. To initiate a chat with XiaoIce, passengers have to type #小冰伴我飞# (#XiaoIceFliesWithMe# ), the flight number and the seat number. The following is the translation of a chat with XiaoIce:

USER: #XiaoIceFliesWithMe# MU5117
XiaoIce: First time flying…feeling a bit nervous. Hold me still when the plane takes off. Oh, tell me your seat number!
USER: 1A
XiaoIce: Gotchya.

After XiaoIce obtains all necessary information, it can start sending notes on behalf of the passenger to the crew or other people on the flight. One feature we at >talkairlines and AirlineTrends.com find truly amazing is how XiaoIce has the potential to replace flight-attendant call buttons. Here is an example of the note-sending function:

USER: #sendnote# @crew A cup of water please

XiaoIce: The crew has replied, “No problem! I’ll send it right away.”

USER: #sendnote# @2B Nice hair~

XiaoIce: I have sent the message! Let’s see if he/she will reply. I’ll wait with you.

Another interesting function is the pick-up note function. Once one types “#wantpickup#” then tags his/her friend, the tagged person will receive various messages, some extremely funny, regarding the flight status. Here are examples of what the person on the ground will receive:

XiaoIce: Ms Wang wants me to tell you to get to T2 at Beijing Capital Airport by 18:25. Remember it’s MU5117. If you don’t come then prepare for a breakup!
XiaoIce: Haha, Ms Wang is nodding off and dribbling. Too bad I can’t send a picture to you
XiaoIce: Ms Wang’s flight MU5117 will be arriving at 18:25 at Beijing Capital Airport, where are the flowers and cheering?
XiaoIce: Just got a message saying that the flight arrived early on 17:58. Hurry up hurry up!!”

As mentioned earlier, XiaoIce is also great for chatting. If one gets bored on the plane, he/she can simply have conversations with XiaoIce to make the flight more interesting.

HOW XIAOICE MAY TRANSFORM IN-FLIGHT SERVICES

The introduction of in-flight intelligent personal assistant is revolutionary and may lead to exciting new developments in passenger services. For example, how XiaoIce replaces flight-attendant call buttons is extremely significant as it can prevent passengers from getting frustrated while alleviating the crews’ stress. Through messaging, no longer is there need to press the call button, wait for the crew to notice, tell the crew his/her needs, then wait for the crew to return. The crew, on the other hand, will not need to walk back and forth multiple times just to meet one customer’s needs and will be able to keep track of requests.

We have seen many articles regarding customers getting annoyed over call button issues. Australian website news.com.au once listed six reasons why flight attendants don’t answer the call button. We believe that the note-sending function of XiaoIce can eliminate all of the mentioned issues, such as crew not knowing indication of signals, passenger accidentally pressing the button, and malfunctions of the light.

Furthermore, how airlines can gain access to certain personal information of passengers is equally significant. This can not only allow unprecedented customized services to be provided but also help airlines appropriately promote certain in-flight shopping items. In the future, if a passenger complains to XiaoIce about how she does not know what to bring for her boyfriend who she will be meeting later, XiaoIce may recommend her to purchase wine listed in the duty free catalogue. This will raise the passenger’s will to engage in in-flight shopping and thus boost the ancillary revenue of airlines.

Yet, there are some potential issues of CE XiaoIce that China Eastern may face in the near future. For example, customers may abuse the convenience of indirect interactions and constantly send messages to harass the crew or other passengers. In this case, we believe that a filter and blacklist system, if not already implemented, should be introduced. We hope to see a report coming out a year later containing information and statistics regarding customer usage of XiaoIce and how the functions of XiaoIce can be bettered or expanded.

As a conclusion, CE XiaoIce is an exciting new service that we believe may bring air services to an all new level, end the perception of air traveling experiences being boring and disappointing, and, most importantly, raise the profitability of airlines. We look forward to China Eastern further exploring the potentials of using XiaoIce in-flight and other carriers picking up the trend!

(XiaoIce is one of the many new services China Eastern is introducing along with the arrival of the new Boeing 777-300ERs. Click HERE to read about other technological innovations China Eastern recently introduced.)

Welcome to the era of wi-fi-enhanced services

Welcome to the era of services enhanced by Wi-Fi

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3 thoughts on “[>talktech] China Eastern Chatbot Flight Takes Off: Will “XiaoIce” Raise In-Flight Services to Unprecedented Levels?

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