LAS VEGAS – About 6 billion SMS messages, more commonly known as texts, are sent each day in the United States. That’s 18 texts for every man, woman and child.
At this rate, using smartphones for talking may be as old-fashioned as a flip phone. Turning that trend into an opportunity, Spirit Airlines on Sept. 1 will roll out a new phase of customer service operated primarily through text messaging.
Spirit CEO Ted Christie announced the new initiative on Aug. 26 at the International Aviation Forecast Summit in Las Vegas. The airline partnered with the popular messaging platform WhatsApp and tech company LivePerson to develop the new channel for its customers, who will be able to book flights, check itineraries and ask questions via text messages.
“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,” said Bobby Schroeter, vice president of sales and marketing at Spirit.
The messaging app has more than 1.5 billion users around the world, although its popularity in the U.S. doesn’t quite measure up to its usage in Europe, Mexico and Latin America. It was that international user base that drew Spirit to establish the partnership.
“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,” Schroeter said. “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.”
Users will be asked a series of automated questions from a chatbot about their reasons for contacting Spirit. The answers will help the system direct the user to a member of the airline’s Guest Relations and Reservations team, who will then continue the conversation and finalize any transactions via a link that takes the user outside WhatsApp.
Customers also have the option to ask for a live representative at any point during the conversation, Spirit said.
Bookings or modifications made through the app incur a $25 charge, the same fee the airline charges for similar transactions done by phone. There is no charge if they’re made online.
“We’ve invested a lot in technology over the last seven years,” Christie said at the annual conference held by the Boyd Group International, an aviation consulting firm. “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.”
Spirit serves seven nonstop destinations from Pittsburgh International Airport, and last year carried more than 500,000 passengers. Pittsburgh passengers can connect, via Ft. Lauderdale, to more than 20 markets in the Caribbean and Latin America on Spirit, including Cancun, Punta Cana, Aruba and Montego Bay.