AI flight search tool to redeem loyalty points

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Skift Tech

While the new Alaska Airlines AI flight search tool has issues, it's an early glimpse of what the future of airline loyalty tech and search could look like.

– Justin Davis

Alaska Airlines is testing an AI-powered flight search tool aimed at influencing travelers during the early stages of travel planning and helping them redeem loyalty points.

The tool allows users to ask for suggested flight destinations based on general topics of interest, such as a whale-watching beach or a wine-tasting vacation. And – this is new – it allows customers to find flights they can buy with a certain amount of loyalty points.

Several airlines have said they are working on similar AI tools, but few have yet released anything, particularly one that accommodates questions about loyalty points.

According to Natalie Bowman, Alaska Airlines' managing director of product and digital experiences, it's an early step toward a long-term goal of helping passengers do more than just shop for specific flights.

“A travel experience that's more focused on your end-to-end journey is where we want to go. For us, that's really making our loyalty program the cornerstone of that because we have so many partners where You can earn miles or redeem miles,” Bowman said. “We think AI can be a huge enabler of really cool experiences out there.”

The tool also includes a network of 30 airline partners that fly to destinations around the world, which Alaska has been building for the past year.

“There hasn't been a lot of visibility for it yet, and so it's a great opportunity to show people that … they can come to Alaska to book world travel,” Bowman said. “And I think in order to do that, we need to get it in the hands of as many people as possible who aren't already naturally coming to Alaska Airlines, and that's for us to attract a new audience. There will be a great opportunity to use it.”

The airline released the tool to 5% of website visitors in mid-April. It will be available to all website visitors in June.

Alaska provided Skift with a link to the tool's webpage so readers could try it out.

How it works

One of Alaska's engineers quickly designed the device as a side project using Microsoft's software building tech and generative AI from OpenAI.

“What we found was that what he produced was delightfully simple,” Bowman said. “It was everything we needed. It didn't need a ton of complexity.”

A user can ask for flight suggestions based on a common prompt, such as, “Take my family to the beach with whales this summer.” It aims to provide answers with flight options for multiple destinations, and each result is paired with a brief explanation of why it's included.

Prompt: “Take my family to the beach with whales this summer.”

Users can ask to see flights that they can buy for a certain amount of points. The answer includes how much it will cost after spending a certain number of points.

“This is a pain point that we know our mileage plan members have,” Bowman said. “People spend a lot of time looking for award flights, and this helps them create a shortcut to get to it very quickly.”

Hint: “A trip to Africa under 200,000 miles.”
Prompt: “Travel up the coast for 15,000 miles.”

As with all AI trip planning tools, there are some issues:

  • This tool recommends flights to the US West Coast unless otherwise indicated.
  • Sometimes the tool only suggests one location.
  • It reports errors and needs to be refreshed frequently.
  • This tool does not suggest alternatives to routes that Alaska does not offer.

what's next

Customers can earn and redeem points for Alaska through partnerships with Lyft and Avis Budget, but they have to manually link accounts on different websites. The airline wants to create an AI-powered tool that allows customers to access all Alaska points in one place.

“You can imagine a world where you can earn or redeem Alaska Airlines miles for every step of your journey, from flight to hotel, to future excursions,” Bowman said.

Alaska is also building a broader trip planning tool with a team of Google engineers, focused on leveraging multiple technologies. Alaska plans to test the device later this year to see which model works best for its needs.

The airline is also working on several other AI projects.

It includes a new internal tool to send personalized emails to Post Booking customers to sell affiliate products. The company plans to start sending personalized flight recommendations in the next two months, taking into account account information such as where a customer sits on a plane and what time they prefer to fly.

The team is also exploring ways to integrate an AI assistant into the middle of the shopping experience to help increase sales rates.

Among its tech initiatives, Alaska is investing $2.5 billion to upgrade passenger technology in airport lobbies. And his venture capital firm is investing in startups aimed at modernizing the transportation industry.

Photo credit: Alaska Airlines is working on several projects involving generative AI.

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