It’s common knowledge that even the best laid plans do not always go according to, well, plan. Few companies understand this concept better than the players in the airline industry.
Plenty of opportunities exist for things to go wrong in airline travel. Over the years, airline carriers have encountered a long list of problems that include computer glitches resulting in delayed flights, severe weather systems and overbooked planes, and those problems or others like them will most likely persist in the years that lie ahead. When these events occur, airline employees — from the agent at the gate to the attendants on the flight itself — will have to deal with crowds of disgruntled customers.
To appease stranded travelers, many airlines now offer vouchers that can be used at businesses like hotels and restaurants. But these vouchers can come with their own set of complications, including where, exactly, the voucher can be used and how long it is actual valid. That means both the traveler who received it and the airline employee who issued it must be diligent in keeping track of the paper voucher, or its value could vanish into thin air.
Wonder Technologies, a digital gift and voucher solutions technology provider, is trying to ease some of those common voucher-related headaches. The company offers a real-time digital disbursement alternative powered by technology from Ingo Money that compensates inconvenienced travelers by delivering funds instantly to their preferred payment cards. In a recent interview with PYMNTS’ Karen Webster, Wonder president Keith Smith discussed the new initiative and how it works to connect a network of airline employees.
Fixing a ‘broken’ voucher system
With trade group Airlines for America (A4A) expecting more travelers to take flights this year than last, the opportunities for travel plans to go wrong are also likely to increase. Smith said this means more passengers interacting with a “broken” physical voucher system.
Smith wanted to address some of the airline industry’s voucher-related pain points using the same technology that Wonder uses for gift programs. To get the process started, the company approached two major airline providers about using Wonder’s solution to deliver funds directly to passengers’ debit or credit cards through personal identifying information, like an email address or a cell phone number.
When a disruptive event occurs, airline staff can initiate the voucher disbursement in real time. Funds are delivered to a passenger’s debit or credit card — or split between different cards, according to Smith — meaning he or she is spared the added aggravation of waiting in line at a customer service desk to obtain a voucher.
With funds delivered in real time, customers who experience a delay can use the voucher to avoid food provided by the airline and grab a meal at an airport restaurant instead. Beyond food items, Smith said the vouchers can be redeemed for a wide array of purposes, from general retail and sporting goods to health and beauty products.
The airline-specific application works like other Wonder solutions employed at ski resorts and restaurants, enabling companies to quickly issue digital gifts to their customers’ mobile phones.
“From a consumer perspective, all they need to do is have an email or a cell phone on record with the airline,” Smith said. “They receive a text or an email or both, and they can link to their debit or credit cards — plural — and then go and shop as they normally would do in-store or online.”
The system can also send text messages alerts to consumers, letting them know what portion of their voucher they have spent.
Meanwhile, companies can integrate the Wonder solution to identify which items qualify for the vouchers, such as a weather-related events, late flights or lost luggage, Smith explained. Carriers can set limits on types of qualifying purchases under the terms of the voucher, and set a voucher expiration date so that money that goes unspent within a specified period can be recouped.
Despite nudging from Webster, however, Smith would not disclose which airline carriers have signed on to use the service. He did say he believes the offering will help the airline industry quell the frustrations of a crowd of passengers who have just learned their flight is cancelled by quickly delivering funds to their accounts.
“[It’s about] how to more effectively get [funds] to customers and speed that process up,” he said, and doing so in a way that doesn’t add to the frustrations of the angry passengers who are waiting in line for compensation.
Getting airline staff in line on vouchers
Smith said customer frustrations with the paper model of travel vouchers can be compounded by airline employee bureaucracy, which might not always be aligned in terms of how much or how many vouchers can be issued.
“In the world that operates today, they’re really at the mercy of the person at the counter, or the gate agent or the flight attendant or customer service,” he said. “None of it’s connected.”
To solve for that friction, the Wonder system seeks to get airline staff on the same page about what kind of travel disruption can be included as a qualifying event, who has already been issued a voucher and any limits on the voucher amount, Smith explained.
“They’re able to connect all our different users — from the flight attendant to the gate agent to the ticket counter to customer service — all in real time,” he said.
Offering this type of connectivity and transparency enables airline staff to more easily keep tabs on the amount of money in issued vouchers, a challenge that can be more difficult using physical vouchers requiring manual update. Having a connected system in place can help save the airline money by compensating inconvenienced travelers with an appropriate amount.
During the interview, Webster reflected on the comments of an airline executive who recently posited such a solution could have saved his company millions of dollars following a string of hurricane-related cancellations. Smith offered insights into how the airline provider could have reaped those savings.
“[Airline staff] can sit there and find a traveler whose flight is delayed,” he said, referring to an inconvenient event that does not warrant a hefty disbursement sum. “Instead of getting a $200 voucher, they’re getting a $50 voucher.”
At the end of the day, Smith pointed to two reasons why airlines would welcome digital voucher solutions.
“One, it’s faster,” Smith said. “Two, they don’t have to, at the end of the day, close out and report back, ‘here are the vouchers I issued.’ It’s all automated.”
Viewing real-time vacancies
Using real-time updates can also help airlines avoid directing inconvenienced customers to hotels that are fully booked, Smith added.
“One of the problems with vouchers today, in that particular use case, was there’s a number of hotels that sold out and only a number of hotels that accepted the vouchers,” he said.
Developments like these add to passengers’ frustrations when they find themselves at hotels that either do not have a vacancy or do not accept the issued voucher after a cancelled flight. Wonder works to head off that problem in advance by pre-purchasing the hotel rooms and keeping staff in the loop about nearby hotel availability in real-time, according to Smith.
While inconveniences are a common development in air travel, having the ability to quickly issue vouchers and disburse funds for inconvenienced passengers could help travelers get their plans back on track. So far, Smith said the system has been well-received by both passengers and the airlines who put it to use. Customers can appreciate getting access to their vouchers without additional hassles and airline staff gain tools to ensure vouchers are issued for appropriate reasons — and save money in the process.
While the best-laid travel plans can still be thrown off course by unforeseen events, having a solution available that can quickly put funds into customers’ accounts, and help airline staff more easily respond or monitor the disbursement process, could go a long way in preventing customers’ tempers from boiling over.
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The PYMNTS.com Disbursements Tracker™, powered by Ingo Money, is your go-to resource for staying up to date on a month-by-month basis on the trends and changes in the digital disbursement space.