Sunday 18 February 2018

WhatsApp docs ... KLM gets its message across to passengers

Back row, Andrew Murphy, Shannon Airport, Matthew Thomas, Shannon Group, Kevin Vickers, Canadian Ambassador to Ireland and Trade Minister, Pat Breen. Front row, Declan Power, Shannon Airport and Blaithin O’Donnell, Air Canada.
Back row, Andrew Murphy, Shannon Airport, Matthew Thomas, Shannon Group, Kevin Vickers, Canadian Ambassador to Ireland and Trade Minister, Pat Breen. Front row, Declan Power, Shannon Airport and Blaithin O’Donnell, Air Canada.
Mark Evans

Mark Evans

Innovation is often born out of desperation - and Dutch airline KLM is a case in point. It's to the fore in digital innovation, but its social media presence wasn't born out of years of careful planning - it came to life through a violent act of nature.

"We felt the strength of social media because of the Iceland volcano and couldn't reach out by email and phone," Karlijn Vogel-Meijer, manager of social media at KLM, told this column.

KLM's WhatsApp service
KLM's WhatsApp service

The Eyjafjallajökull eruption caused passenger chaos and resulted in the largest air traffic shutdown since World War II. Twitter and co kept KLM's customers in the loop, and now the airline receives 15,000 questions or remarks per week, with social media channels manned by 250 staff, the largest team in the world.

Social media can bite you in the backside - and KLM has had its own online mishaps - but Vogel-Meijer said there's no turning back. "The Dutch culture is quite pragmatic - we're not afraid to make mistakes," she said.

It's moved up its online presence a notch now, becoming the first airline in the world to have a verified WhatsApp business account. So what, you might ask? Well, it's a move away from the idea of just booking your ticket and then turning up for your flight - it's now a two-way process where the passenger has a channel of communication at all times.

After making a booking on the airline's main website, the intending passenger can tick a box to opt into the WhatsApp service, receive a booking confirmation, check-in notifications, flight status updates and use the app as a boarding pass: "All the airports we serve can accept scan codes for boarding passes," said Vogel-Meijer. All messages are encrypted, so only you and the airline can access them, and even KLM itself can only see if your number is a WhatsApp number, and nothing else.

Agents are also available to deal with queries (the recent hurricanes in the US show how useful this can be), right around the clock in nine languages - except the Italian speakers, who are nine-to-fivers. It's a first with WhatsApp, following on from the use of Facebook Messenger (massive in the US in particular) and, in China, the all powerful WeChat, where 20-30pc of all payments were made on it within a few days following a soft launch. And it's expecting a big take-up here, she said. "WhatsApp use is very high in Ireland, so we expect a lot from Ireland."

The airline has in recent days increased its Amsterdam-Dublin summer 2017 schedule for the second time with six flights daily on Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.


Maybe it was Leo Varadkar's maple leaf novelty socks, but Ireland appears to be flavour of the month in Canada right now.

As featured in this column earlier this year, Air Canada is looking to a bigger corporate travel market, switching its Dublin to Toronto services from the leisure-focused Air Canada Rouge brand to its mainline Air Canada product.

It means the end of economy and premium to a three-class cabin, featuring International Business Class, Premium Economy and Standard Economy from October 29 next. What's new, though is the announcement of two new routes - Dublin to Montreal and Shannon to Toronto. Those flights will follow the lead of Norwegian, using the more cost-efficient (and brand new) Boeing 737 Max 8 aircraft, which though single aisle, will offer business calss as well as economy class.

The airline's Irish head, Bláithín O'Donnell, said that the "recent signing of the CETA trade agreement and the increased bilateral visits by Canadian and Irish politicians and government officials have also signalled a growth in business travel between the two countries", while Canada's Federal Minister of International Trade, François-Philippe Champagne, said that the expansions are "crucial in continuing and growing our political and economic partnership with Ireland" and would help Canadian businesses take advantage of the opportunity that CETA will bring on the 21st of September". The last few days have been good to Shannon in particular, which also picked up a new route - to Barcelona Reus with Ryanair.

n Worth mentioning from last week's expat survey - we Irish really do seem to be popular around the world, with 82pc of Irish abroad saying they're never felt unwelcome because of their nationality, compared to an average of 65pc for all others.

Close to a quarter of the Irish in foreign climes say their friends are mostly local residents - which is a bit of a double-edged sword if governments ever want to entice them back home - 42pc say they possibly want to stay abroad for good, and the cost of living back home is the big factor dragging them away. If you're looking to work abroad, even on a short-term basis, the InternNations survey is a mine of data from others who've already made the move. See

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