Fun With Alex: Continental Airlines’ Latest “Improvement”

I love press releases with their often cheery non-news trying to make us excited that a new CEO showed up in the company to have his turn running it into the ground or some company has tried to improve its product or service simply by calling it something different or “rebranding.” Continental Airlines lost big money this last quarter (thus cutting 1700 jobs and raising luggage fees), but I can see they are really trying hard to get us back. They’ve now introduced Alex! Yes, a little graphic of a woman with an operator’s headset which makes Continental Airlines the “first network carrier to offer human emulation technology.” That just sounds creepy.

We all know how replacing humans with voice recognition on the phone has worked: “Please say your destination.” Los Angeles. “Did you say The Islamic Republic of Iran?” No! “I’m sorry, I didn’t get that.” I said, NO! “I’m sorry, I’m having trouble understanding you.” Of course you are, because you don’t understand anything at all – you’re a computer. “Let’s begin again. Please say your destination…” I do wish that at certain cues the operator would interject: “Sir, that kind of language won’t be tolerated.” I make those cues a lot and it would at least be amusing.

So I went to the Continental Airlines website and clicked on Alex. At every question I typed (already not impressed, but perhaps relieved) Alex told me to go look at a web page and popped up some links. Well isn’t that what the search feature on all Type Your Question Here searches does? Sure, but THIS one has a woman’s voice to tell you that. Oooh! Aaah! Plus the frozen smile of the Alex image. So unlike real people with real answers she is someone who always smiles, and just says Can’t you check the website? Wait. Actually that makes her a helluva lot just like most customer service people. I get more interaction out of the self-check-out at the grocery store where they even know I didn’t put that apple in the bagging area yet.

I think I have a better idea of what might emulate a human. How about a human? You could pay someone to… oh, right. “Pay” Never mind.

The person who writes the press releases says that Mark Bergsrud (Senior VP of marketing) says “We are constantly looking for ways to improve our ability to deliver the best customer experience, and Alex will be an invaluable resource to our customers.” Really, how hard are they looking? Invaluable?? “Improve our ability” means lower costs I suppose.

I typed in Madison to Los Angeles. Alex didn’t really give a damn anymore and like an ex-girlfriend refused to talk to me – yet remained, oddly, smiling. Was it something I typed? And so this became just another airline fare search and she never interrupted when I typed in a random airport code that Continental doesn’t fly to in Alaska. Not even a “Please try again.” I had to READ the red error message! The horror.

I can say this though: $208 from MSN to LAX. That’s pretty good. Now if that flight’s on time and the flight attendants smile as much as Alex, I think I see where Contintental might better put its efforts…

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