Sabre launches ‘Ella,’ TSI’s new virtual travel agent chatbot

Sabre Corp. launched a pilot program of a “virtual agent” chatbot powered by artificial intelligence with Dallas-headquartered Travel Services International USA (TSI).

As with most initial forays into the world of bots, TSI expects its version, which it has named Ella, to start work handling basic routine service requests, freeing live agents to deal with more complex issues.

The requests will come from TSI’s corporate customers, who will access Ella via the TSI app or by Facebook Messenger from TSI’s Facebook page, where customers can friend her.

Ella, who is text-based, will assist them with existing reservations on topics such as voluntary flight changes, special meal requests, selecting and paying for a seat and requesting an e-mailed itinerary.

If the chatbot can’t fulfill a request, it will hand the traveler over to a live agent.

During the pilot period, TSI and Sabre will study how corporate travelers interact with Ella and “the kinds of emerging conversational interfaces that she represents,” Claire LeBuhn, TSI’s vice president of support services, said.

Throughout the test, Sabre and TSI will evaluate travelers’ preferences for how often and when they engage the chatbot and when they are likely to divert to a live agent.

One of their goals is to determine the best ways to engage travelers with chatbots and to solve for some of the most common friction points associated with chatbots, such as how travelers initially find the bot.

First announced last summer, the chatbot uses Microsoft’s Bot Framework and Microsoft Cognitive Services, a set of tools that enables developers to add intelligent and conversational features to their applications.

Among the tools Sabre is using is Language Understanding Intelligent Service (LUIS).

One of the key challenges in human-computer interactions is the ability of computers to understand what people want and find relevant information that connects to their intent.

Adding to the complexity of the project is the plethora of unique terms and phrases used within the travel industry.

LUIS provides simple tools to build language models that allow any application or bot to understand commands and respond accordingly.

Sabre and TSI join a growing number of travel companies that are test how chatbots can fit into their businesses.

Last month, Amadeus and, an Indian startup, began testing a bilingual chatbot in the Thai market.

In May, OpenJaw Technologies began building a conversational chatbot with the help of Watson, IBM’s artificial intelligence technology (and Jeopardy champion).

Finnair launched a chatbot named Finn that is compliant with IATA’s NDC standard in September.

Sabre also is working with San Francisco-based Casto Travel to develop a “virtual agent.”

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