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Did you make your connecting flight? You might have the AI ​​to thank.| GuyWhoKnowsThings


Last month in Chicago, a United Airlines flight bound for London was ready to depart, but was still waiting for 13 passengers connecting from Costa Rica. The airline projected they would miss the flight by seven minutes. Under normal circumstances, everyone would be scrambling to rebook.

But thanks to a new AI-powered tool called ConnectionSaver, the plane was able to wait for them (also their checked bags) and still make it to London on time. The system also sent text messages to late arriving passengers and people on the plane waiting to explain what was happening.

The AI ​​might not be able to find room for your carry-on luggage yet, but it could help put an end to the 40-door dash (racing to catch your connecting flight before the door slams shut), as well as to other common travel headaches.

It's not just United. Alaska Airlines, American Airlines and others have been working to develop new artificial intelligence capabilities that could make flying easier for passengers. Airlines are also using technology to reduce costs and streamline operations, including fuel savings, said Helane Becker, an airline industry analyst at the investment bank. TD Cowen. Although many of the airlines are developing their programs independently, a successful innovation by any airline could become an industry standard.

AI is set to change almost every aspect of the customer's flight experience, from baggage tracking to personalized in-flight entertainment, said Jitender Mohan, who works with travel and hospitality clients at the technology consulting firm. WNS.

AI is helping Alaska Airlines dispatchers plan more efficient routes starting in 2021. “It's like Google Maps, but in the air,” explained Vikram Baskaran, the airline's vice president of information technology services.

Two hours before a flight, the system reviews weather conditions, any airspace that will be closed, and all commercial and private flight plans on file with the Federal Aviation Administration to suggest the most efficient route. AI absorbs “an amount of information that no human brain could process,” said Pasha Saleh, Alaska's director of corporate development and pilot.

In 2023, about 25 percent of Alaska flights used this system to shave a few minutes off flight times. Those efficiencies added up to about 41,000 minutes of flight time and a savings of 500 million gallons of fuel, Baskaran said.

On the floor, American Airlines and others are working on an AI-powered system that American calls Smart Gating: It sends arriving planes to the closest available gate with the shortest taxi time and, if the scheduled arrival gate is in use, quickly determines the best alternative door. All of this could mean fewer frustrating minutes waiting on the tarmac.

American introduced Smart Gating at Dallas Fort Worth International Airport in 2021 and now employs it at six airports, including Chicago O'Hare and Miami International. The airline estimates that it saves 17 hours a day in taxi time and 1.4 million gallons of jet fuel annually.

Mohan said using AI as a virtual parking assistant could save up to 20 per cent of taxi time, with the biggest benefits seen at larger airports.

Rapidly evolving generative AI (think ChatGPT) is helping airlines communicate better with passengers. At United, a company-wide challenge last year resulted in a plan to make text messages sent to flyers more specific about the causes of delays. Passengers can become frustrated when flights are delayed without explanation, said Jason Birnbaum, United's chief information officer.

But tracking down the required details, drafting an appropriate message and sending it to the right people for 5,000 flights a day would be too much for staff, Birnbaum said. Generative AI can process all that data and create messages tailored to the conditions. For example, passengers who booked a United flight in January from San Francisco to Tucson received this text message, along with a new departure time and an apology: “Your arriving plane is late due to runway construction. San Francisco airport that limited the number of flights. arrivals and departures of all airlines earlier.”

Having a more detailed explanation can calm travelers' nerves. Jamie Larounis, a travel industry analyst who flies about 150,000 miles a year, recalled receiving text messages last summer explaining that a storm and a crew scheduling issue had delayed his flight from Chicago. “Receiving a specific reason for the delay made me feel like the airline had things under control,” he said.

Generative AI is also good at summarizing text, making it a powerful tool for reading emails. Last year, Alaska was among operators that began using AI to handle customer messages more efficiently. The airline system “reads” each email and summarizes the issues raised.

“We used to read first in, first out, handling requests as they came in,” Baskaran said, but now the system helps prioritize emails. For example, an urgent request regarding an upcoming flight may take priority over a complaint about an earlier one.

The system also helps a human agent decide how to respond, such as offering the customer a voucher, and can compose an initial written response. “The person makes the decision, but it's simplified,” Baskaran said.

Despite all the benefits that AI promises to airlines and passengers, the technology still has some shortcomings. For one thing, it doesn't always provide accurate information. In 2022, an Air Canada chatbot incorrectly promised a traveler that if he booked a full-fare flight for a family member's funeral, he could receive a bereavement rate after the fact. When it filed a small claims case, Air Canada tried to argue that the robot was its own separate entity, “responsible for its own actions,” but a court found Air Canada liable and ordered him to pay about $800 in damages and fees.

Still, as AI develops and airlines rush to find more uses for it, passengers could see even more benefits. “As a customer and business owner, this is one of the biggest technology disruptions in the last five to eight years,” Mohan said.


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