American Express Simplifies, Speeds Up Reservations

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BALTIMORE -- American Express Corporate Service Group, New York, which offers corporate card and business travel services to large- and medium-size companies, is gearing up to launch Paris, a speech-recognition system that will give corporate travelers 24-hour telephone access to real-time flight availability and information, and the ability to make reservations.


An alternative for time-pressed travelers to check flight options or book a simple itinerary, travelers will this year have the ability to call a toll-free number and request flight options using conversational English phrases such as "I want to fly to New York," or "I need to go to LaGuardia Airport," and receive answers immediately over the phone, by fax or by e-mail based on seat availability.


Developed with Nuance Communications Inc., Menlo Park, CA, a leader in speech-recognition software, Paris is now being field-tested with positive results.


The system recognizes names and synonyms for more than 350 U.S. cities and airports and up to 10,000 phrases. Early test results by users of various accents from all regions of the country show that the system performed at a 95 to 97 percent accuracy rate. Early estimates indicate that Paris can cut transaction time by 50 to 70 percent.


Paris is user-friendly, according to Melissa Abernathy, spokesperson for American Express Corporate Services. "It requires no training or special technical knowledge. I can dictate into this machine and don't have to wait for questions," said Abernathy. "I can actually interrupt in the middle of a question and give it my answer."


The system is customized for each user. The company's corporate travel policy and negotiated fares are automatically applied each time an employee uses the system. Paris also allows travelers to update their profile preferences, such as whether they favor an aisle or window seat, or a smoking or non-smoking room.


"We are continuing to be one low-priced source for a company's travel information needs," said Abernathy. "Other agencies don't have the same technology and are not able to offer as integrated a service."


The system will have two modes: a structured dialogue for beginners and a conversational version for experienced users. In the beginner mode, Paris "asks" the user to reply to questions about his or her travel plans: dates, origin and destination cities, and flight times.


The second phase of development, which is scheduled for the fall, is test of the expert mode, which allows a more natural interaction. An experienced user can speak in whole sentences or phrases without prompts, giving the dates, cities and times in any order. The system can calculate the correct date from a day of the week and recognize a number of key words for departures and arrivals, for example, "I want to go from New York to Chicago next Wednesday morning." The system will prompt for any missing information and then repeat back the request to confirm that it has correctly "understood" before searching the reservations databases.


Paris will complement other channels American Express offers its corporate customers, including: American Express Business Travel Centers, staffed by experienced travel counselors, and AXI (American Express Interactive), a customized, online travel reservations system.
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