How airlines are using AI to make flying easier

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A United Airlines flight to London was ready to depart in Chicago last month, but it was waiting for 13 Costa Rica-bound passengers. The airline predicted he would miss the flight by seven minutes. Under normal circumstances, they would all be scrambling to book again.

But thanks to a new artificial intelligence-powered tool called Connection Saver, the jet was able to wait for them – even their checked bags – and still reach London on time. The system also sent text messages to delayed passengers and people on waiting jets to let them know what was going on.

AI still might not be able to find a place to take you, but it can help eliminate the 40-gate dash — running to catch your connecting flight before the door closes — as well as other Common travel headache.

It's not just United. Alaska Airlines, American Airlines and others are working to develop new AI capabilities that could make flying easier for passengers. Carriers are also using technology to cut costs and streamline operations, including fuel savings, said Helen Becker, an airline industry analyst for investment bank TD Cowen. Although many airlines are developing their programs independently, any carrier's successful innovation can potentially become an industry standard.

Jitendra Mohan, who works with travel and hospitality clients at technology consulting company WNS, said AI, from baggage tracking to personalized in-flight entertainment, is shaping almost every aspect of a customer's in-flight experience. Ready to change.

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, vice president of information technology services careers.

Two hours before a flight, the system evaluates weather conditions, any airspace that will be closed, and all commercial and private flight plans registered with the Federal Aviation Administration, to ensure the most efficient flight. The route can be suggested. AI “takes in an amount of information that no human brain can process,” said Pasha Saleh, corporate development director and Alaska pilot.

In 2023, about 25 percent of Alaska flights used the system to cut flight times by a few minutes. Those capabilities added about 41,000 minutes of flying time and saved half a billion gallons of fuel, Mr. Baskaran said.

on the ground, American Airlines and others are working on an AI-powered system called AmericanCalls SmartGating — sending arriving aircraft to the nearest available gate with the shortest taxi time, and if the scheduled arrival gate is in use. Determining the best alternative gate immediately. All this can mean fewer frustrating minutes spent waiting on the tarmac.

American introduced SmartGating 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 taxi time and 1.4 million gallons of jet fuel a year.

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

Rapidly evolving generative AI — think ChatGPT — is helping airlines better communicate with passengers. At United, a companywide challenge last year led to a plan to make texts sent to fliers more specific about what's causing the delay. Jason Birnbaum, United's chief information officer, said passengers can be frustrated when flights are delayed without explanation.

But tracking down the required details, writing the appropriate message and sending it to the right people on 5,000 flights a day would be too much work for the crew, Mr. Birnbaum said. Generative AI can process all this data and create contextually tailored messages. For example, passengers booked on a January United flight from San Francisco to Tucson received this text message, along with a new departure time and an apology: “Your inbound flight is running at the airport in San Francisco. Arrivals are delayed due to road construction which limits the number of passengers arriving and departing earlier.

A more detailed explanation can calm passengers' nerves. Jamie Larrones, a travel industry analyst who travels about 150,000 miles a year, recalled text messages he received last summer that said the storm and related crew scheduling had been disrupted. The problem had delayed his flight from Chicago. “Giving a specific reason for the delay made me feel like the airline was in control,” he said.

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

“Earlier we used to read, handle requests as they came in, but now the system helps prioritize emails. For example, an urgent request involving an upcoming flight is about the past,” said Mr. Baskaran. A complaint may be filed.

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

For all the benefits that AI promises to airlines and passengers, the technology still has some drawbacks. For one, it doesn't always provide accurate information. In 2022, an Air Canada chatbot falsely promised a passenger that if he booked a full-fare flight for a relative's funeral, he could get a bereavement fare after the fact. When it filed a small claims lawsuit, Air Canada tried to argue that Bot was its own separate entity, “responsible for its own actions,” but a tribunal found Air Canada liable and Ordered to pay approximately $800 in damages and fees.

Still, as AI evolves and airlines race to find more uses for it, passengers could reap even greater benefits. “As a customer and as an entrepreneur, this is one of the biggest technology disruptions of the last five to eight years,” Mr. Mohan said.

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