Did you make your connecting flight? You may have AI to thank.

Airlines are using artificial intelligence to save fuel, keep customers informed and hold connecting flights for delayed passengers. — The New York Times

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

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

AI still might not be able to find space for your carry-on, but it could help put an end to the 40-gate dash – sprinting to catch your connecting flight before the door slams shut – as well as other common travel headaches.

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

AI is poised to change almost every aspect of the customer flying experience, from baggage tracking to personalised in-flight entertainment, said Jitender Mohan, who works with travel and hospitality clients at the technology consulting company WNS.

Saving fuel and frustration

AI has been helping Alaska Airlines dispatchers plan more efficient routes since 2021. “It’s like Google maps, but in the air,” explained Vikram Baskaran, vice president for information technology services at the carrier.

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

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

On the ground, American Airlines and others are working on an AI-powered system American calls Smart Gating – sending arriving aircraft to the nearest available gate with the shortest taxiing time, and if the scheduled arrival gate is in use, quickly determining the best alternate gate. All 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 taxi time and 1.4 million gallons of jet fuel a year.

Mohan said that using AI as a virtual parking attendant could save up to 20% of taxiing time, with the highest benefits seen at the largest airports.

Faster and better customer service

Rapidly evolving generative AI – think ChatGPT – is helping airlines communicate with passengers better. At United, a companywide challenge last year yielded a plan to make texts sent to flyers more specific about what’s causing delays. Passengers can get frustrated when flights are delayed with no explanation, said Jason Birnbaum, United’s chief information officer.

But tracking the details required, 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 that data and create messages tailored to conditions.

For example, passengers booked on a January United flight from San Francisco to Tucson, Arizona, received this text message, along with a new departure time and an apology: “Your inbound aircraft is arriving late due to airport runway construction in San Francisco that limited the number of arrivals and departures for all airlines earlier.”

Having a more detailed explanation can calm travellers’ 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 problem had delayed his flight from Chicago. “Getting 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 wading 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 summarises the issues raised.

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

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

For all the benefits AI promises to airlines and passengers, the technology still has some shortcomings. For one, it doesn’t always deliver accurate information. In 2022, an Air Canada chatbot incorrectly promised a traveller that if he booked a full-fare flight to a relative’s funeral, he could receive a bereavement fare after the fact.

When he filed a small-claims case, Air Canada tried to argue that the bot was its own separate entity, “responsible for its own actions,” but a tribunal found Air Canada responsible and ordered it to pay about US$800 (RM3,796) in damages and fees.

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

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