How airlines are using artificial intelligence to make flying easier

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

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

The AI ​​may still not be able to find space for your carry-on, but it could help put an end to the 40-gate rush — sprinting to catch your connecting flight before the door closes — as well as other common ones travel headaches.

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

AI is poised to change nearly every aspect of customers' flight experience, from baggage tracking to personalized in-flight entertainment, said Jitender Mohan, who works with travel and hospitality clients at technology consultancy WNS .

Artificial intelligence 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 for information technology services.

Two hours before the 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 recommend the most efficient route. AI absorbs “a lot of information that no human brain could process,” said Pasha Saleh, director of business development and pilot for Alaska.

In 2023, approximately 25% of Alaska flights used this system to shave a few minutes off flight time. Those efficiencies amount to about 41,000 minutes of flight time and half a million gallons of fuel saved, Baskaran said.

On the ground, American Airlines and others are working on an AI-based system that American calls Smart Gating: It sends arriving planes to the closest available gate with the shortest taxiing time, and, if the scheduled arrival gate is in use, determines quickly the best alternative gate. All of this could mean fewer frustrating minutes spent 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 it saves 17 hours a day in taxis and 1.4 million liters of fuel per year.

Mohan said using AI as a virtual parking attendant could save up to 20% of taxiing time, with the greatest 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 produced a plan to make messages sent to flyers more specific about what causes delays. Passengers can become frustrated when flights are delayed without explanation, said Jason Birnbaum, United's chief information officer.

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

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 related crew scheduling issue had delayed his flight from Chicago. “Being given a specific reason for the delay made me feel like the airline had the situation under control,” he said.

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

“In the past we 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 precedence over a complaint about a past one.

The system also helps a human agent decide how to respond, for example by offering the customer a voucher, and can draft an initial written response. “The decision is made by the person, but the process is simplified,” Baskaran said.

Despite all the benefits that AI promises 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 mistakenly promised a traveler that if he booked a full-fare flight for a relative's funeral, he could receive a bereavement fee after the fact. When it filed a small claims lawsuit, Air Canada tried to argue that the bot was a separate entity, “responsible for its own actions,” but a court found Air Canada liable and ordered it to pay about $800 in damages and expenses.

However, as AI develops and airlines race to find more uses for it, passengers could see even more benefits. “As a customer and businessman, this is one of the biggest technological innovations of the last five to eight years,” Mohan said.

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