IVR on the Air at Dubai Airport

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Dubai International Airport in the United Arab Emirates is one of the fastest growing airports in the world. In 2007, it serviced 34.3 million passengers, exceeding projections by more than 1 million. Growth continued in 2008, with 37 million travelers passing through (though it anticipated 40 million). By 2010, airport officials expect 60 million people a year to pass through the terminals.

Like its airport, Dubai itself has seen tremendous growth in the past 10 years. It is perhaps most famous for its notable construction projects. Among them are the largest hotel in the world; the tallest man-made structure in the world, the 162-story Burj Dubai skyscraper; and a chain of 300 islands shaped like countries of the world.

For all of its incredible growth and increasing sense of cosmopolitanism, however, some of its sectors have lagged behind. Call center service is one of them. Most systems in Dubai are a hybrid of interactive voice response (IVR) and live agents, according to Salim A J, senior product manager at Emerging Technologies, where he is also responsible for tactical marketing.

“The customer service levels are not that great,” A J says.

Services are not really differentiated, he explains. A bank, for instance, has the same call center as any other commercial enterprise because many Dubai businesses still aren’t thinking of developing tailored customer service.

“Compared to North America, when you look at the call center, our metrics are very below that,” he adds.

This was also the case at the airport. But with the increasing traffic and corresponding strain on its call center, the impetus for change was mounting.

The call center originally used a touch-tone system also serviced by live agents. “You can simply imagine,” A J says. “People had to key in their flight number or key in the number of the destination using alphanumerics. It was painful and complex. People usually 

didn’t get it right and tended to reach out to live agents. This put a huge load on the live agents to handle the calls to give them flight information.”

Given that the airport handles 120 airlines flying to 205 destinations, call volume proved to be a strain for agents. It’s no surprise, then, that the airport sought to install a voice-enabled system that could relay flight information to travelers.

The airport contracted with Emerging Technologies in 2006 to revamp its system, which, in turn, tapped Pronexus to build the platform.

At the time of its selection, Emerging Technologies was one of the more prominent players in the UAE’s budding technology sector. The Dubai-based company had already completed one major project: the call center for the Dubai Financial Market (DFM), a government-owned Dubai-based stock exchange. The success of that deployment, which called for 120 to 160 ports to handle around 24,000 calls per day, played a role in Emerging Technologies’ selection for the Dubai Airport project.

Emerging Technologies had used Pronexus’ VBVoice platform for the DFM deployment. Citing the ease and rapidity of application development, the firm was able to meet the rather tight time-to-market constraints outlined in that contract: just two to three months to implement the entire system. 

A J points to VBVoice’s compatibility with the latest versions of Nuance Communications’ speech recognition engine and Microsoft’s .NET framework—both key features in the overall speech application—as another reason for his company’s selection of Pronexus as a partner. The Nuance engine was particularly key since it provides a native Arabic language pack from which to work—something that many other engines simply did not. 

Pronexus’ customer care support and its consistent updates to the IVR toolkit also helped seal the deal. It proved a good move when Emerging Technologies ran into technological problems trying to integrate its system with the airport’s customer communication systems. The issues were resolved quickly by working closely with Pronexus’ support team.

“That’s where our partnership relations really started strengthening year over year. We get that kind of support from Pronexus instantly,” A J says.

With few exceptions, most of the deployment was straightforward. Where Emerging Technologies really had to flex its creative muscles was in localizing to the regional market and airport.

“Our initial killer application was for Dubai Financial Market. It was mainly addressing a small community—mainly investors. What happened with Dubai Airport is we were expanding the same community to a larger public,” A J says.

For the system it was building, this meant dealing with a plethora of regional Arabic dialects, many of which differ greatly from one another. Being able to handle a wide swath of these was crucial for the airport, a major commercial and transportation hub for all of the Middle East. To continue playing that role, it would need to service its market fluidly. That is to say, Nuance’s standard Arabic vocabulary would not suffice.

To meet those needs, Emerging Technologies created its own in-house regional vocabularies, something it cites as one of its main assets. As one would expect, the company is trying to leverage those vocabularies in seeking business throughout the Middle East, too.

“We significantly improved system performance. Now with new applications, when we roll out, we have a localized layer on top of Nuance technology that is unique to us, and can take care of all the Arabic accents and all regional accents as a whole,” A J says.

The airport application now handles between 13,000 and 14,000 calls per day. It is a bilingual system, able to communicate with callers in either English or Arabic. When a caller first enters the system, he chooses one or the other and the call proceeds in that language.

While Emerging Technologies has not conducted official surveys, it has been monitoring call traffic into the system and claims success. Anecdotal accounts include several people concluding their calls to the IVR by saying, “Thank you, ma’am,” never knowing that they were talking to an automated agent rather than a live person. Part of this can be explained by the fact that the airport implementation is one of the first of its kind in the region, and that many callers lack experience with automated systems. For the most part, they’re used to dealing with live agents.

Emerging Technologies has seen interest around its products grow since the airport deployment. “Speech is really starting to take off in this market, and we are the company introducing this kind of innovative technology in this market,”   A J boasts. “Prior to that, we didn’t have many installations or a base.” 

A J sees Dubai as a key to the rest of Middle Eastern businesses. Emerging Technologies has, for instance, already built a system in Saudi Arabia for a religious Islamic portal and has been busy with other telecommunications projects.

“Moving onward, we have deployed applications handling transactions and even voice biometrics [in] government adoptions. These things really give us good mileage, especially in Dubai. Every other Middle Eastern country is looking at what Dubai is doing and waiting, and following them.”

App At a Glance

Dubai International Airport’s flight information IVR handles:

  • 13,000 to 14,000 calls per day; 
  • information related to 120 airlines and 205 destinations; and
  • millions of calls per year in English and Arabic, with the ability to deal with the many regional dialects of Arabic, as well.

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