We’ve reached a tipping point in the evolution of airport IT. Thanks to the combination of immense data feeds and ever emerging technological capabilities, we’re now embarking on a journey where – over the next couple of decades – we’ll see radical changes in how people get on and off planes, and how airlines get their planes in and out of airports. And it will all be down to new types of Artificial Intelligence (AI) applications.
Imagine it. You’ll arrive at the airport in a self-drive car, whereupon a robot will collect your bag. Then you’ll present your biometric (probably your face) to get yourself through every checkpoint on your way to boarding the plane. Simple. A streamlined experience, with no fuss.
The trend is clearly underway, and we’ve seen AI cited in the recently launched IATA/ACI program, New Experience in Travel and Technologies, or NEXTT. Our research reveals that about half of airlines and airports say they’re planning to adopt predictive tools – using AI and cognitive computing – over the coming five to ten years. Already a few front runners are trialing predictive modeling, machine learning and data mining.
On time and online
One area of interest is flight disruption, which mostly because of the weather, represents a huge estimated cost of US$25 billion to the air transport industry. That’s why airlines and airports are looking at technologies to enhance responsiveness during disruptions, improving performance and customer service. Over the next three years, 80% of airlines plan to invest in major programs or R&D for prediction and warning systems, which rely heavily on AI.
The chatbot is another technology catching industry attention, with 14% of airlines and 9% of airports now use these computer programs, including KLM, British Airways and Avianca. There’s a huge appetite among air transport CIOs to embrace chatbots over the next three years. By 2020, 68% of airlines and 42% of airports plan to adopt AI-driven chatbot services, according to our Insights report.
No doubt most of us will have interacted with chatbots. They mimic human conversation; they can help with customer queries, perform check-ins and book flights. A machine taking your reservation via voice commands has already landed.
AI will be part of our industry’s fabric
In fact, AI is already embedded into airport operations and experiences, from new biometric systems using facial recognition, to cameras that can ‘see’ and tell you things like queue times, or detect operational incidents that need attention.
More AI will arrive as air transport rises to the challenge of significant growth. AI will be part of the industry’s fabric: from the building of smarter planes, to autonomous vehicles at the airport, smarter air
traffic control and flight operations, and recovery from disruption. AI will be in the hands of both staff and passengers, with bots and APIs feeding apps on smartphones. And it will be in the airport’s infrastructure to analyze video in real time for issues, for biometric screening and for boarding systems.
On the ground
Throughout the airport, AI will manage robots for information and guidance, check in, immigration, porter duties and a whole lot more around airport operations and security. Equipped with face recognition, they’ll understand spoken language, print or show information on screens, scan passports and boarding passes, process visas, and show people the way. And they’ll be used to integrate airport, airline, government and security systems.
We’ve already taken steps in this direction, creating two prototype passenger service robots. First KATE, a robotic check-in kiosk that navigates autonomously to busy areas of the departure hall, without cabling or other attachments. And second, Leo, a self-service baggage robot that can check in and collect passengers’ bags when they arrive at the airport and process them for flight.
Augmented by robots, AI will evolve to support flight operations, facility management, baggage handling and cargo operations. It will be working behind the scenes, in autonomous dollies, for example, that transfer bags and equipment; in the reassigning of gates; and in coordinating ground crew to accommodate schedule variance and service interruptions.
A shared approach
Embracing AI means being able to retain, store, clean, process, curate and make accessible all data that can usefully be made available. But if, as a community, we’re going to gain the most benefit from AI, we must be mindful of the necessity to collaborate and to share this data. We believe that SITA, being owned by the air transport industry, is in a unique and neutral position at the center of the airline and airport community, with the ability to leverage this data for the benefit of all stakeholders.
With the global shift towards self-service, and the constant increase in passenger demand, AI at the airport has a game-changing future, creating a much more efficient air transport industry and making the passenger journey a better than ever experience.
Jim Peters is the Chief Technology Officer (CTO) of SITA Passenger Solutions