No matter which class you fly, AI is personalizing airline travel

Photo Paul Vincent via Unsplash

In the golden age of aviation, air travel was a luxury and passengers were treated like royalty. Back then, travelers dined on steak and lobster served on fine china. They stretched out their legs in expansive one-class seating and sipped champagne. Perhaps most precious among the comforts was the team of “air hostesses” whose mission was to make you feel like the king or queen of your very own castle in the clouds.

“All service was complimentary. And because the stewardess-to-passenger ratio was so much higher than it is today, you could expect one to nearly instantly cater to your every need,” said Guillaume de Syon, a professor at Pennsylvania’s Albright College.

Golden Age of Flying

© SAS Museum/Courtesy of The SAS Museum Oslo airport Norway

Luxury was defined by personalization. Back then, airlines seemed to know you and anticipate your needs. Now, airlines are reviving that spirit though the use of artificial intelligence (AI) and other cutting-edge technologies. As global competition in the industry continues to intensify, the ability to personalize the travel experience through every step of the journey is becoming a critical differentiator for airlines today. Travelers have more say over the choice of carriers, ticket pricing, and service options than at any time in the past decade.

Between 2010 and 2016, the number of flights per year by the global airline industry increased from 27.8 million to 35.4 million. Meanwhile, the entry of more low-cost carriers (LCCs) impacted the market. Daily LCC flights during the same period grew by 62 percent (from 5,200 flights per day to 8,400). That kind of volume empowered the customer. But it also turned the travel experience into something to be endured more than enjoyed.

“One of the challenges, our research shows, is that customers view airlines as a commodity,” said consumer analyst Henry Harteveldt, co-founder of Atmosphere Research, a travel industry research company. AI is reversing that trend through digital tools that enable flight attendants to drive both customer loyalty and incremental revenue.

Deliver personalized travel experiences

Air Canada flight attendants, for instance, carry IBM’s Ancillary Sales App on their mobile devices to provide tailored services around food and beverage, merchandise and duty-free items, all based on analytics. As attendants move down the aisle, the app displays a seat map that allows them to make seating changes and upgrades in real time, while also providing a profile of each passenger’s preferences for upselling and cross-selling. “[This kind of technology] turns the flight attendant into the traveler’s advocate, and even hero,” says Harteveldt.

Today’s passengers also benefit from personalization long before they settle into their seats. One passenger care app untethers customer service agents for United Airlines and other carriers from behind the counter to perform booking and other services directly with travelers wherever they are. When a flight is delayed or oversold, the agent can take care of the customer’s needs on the spot.

It’s all powered by AI analytics about the passenger based on past interactions. Using the app, agents can also provide personalized offers for food or other products prior to flight—the time when most ancillary sales are completed.

“The airline industry doesn’t seem to realize they’re sitting on a goldmine of data,” said Vivek Wadhwa, a Distinguished Fellow and professor at Carnegie Mellon University Silicon Valley. “It can take this data and provide better service to their customers, optimize operations, reduce cost, and increase efficiency.”

Augmented reality presents an opportunity for airlines to use that data to shape a traveler’s journey long before they reach the departure gate. Harteveldt envisions a day soon when travelers will use augmented reality on their smartphones to navigate the layout of the airport terminal, including restaurants, shops, and lounges.

Imagine a family with two hungry kids identifying the quickest route from their departure area to the food court before a flight without having to dash madly through the terminal. An airline that has insights on that family from previous trips can anticipate and serve their needs directly with food suggestions and even discounts at their favorite restaurants.

“The fun thing about thinking about all of this is that technology is this wonderful enabler toward a more pleasant, productive, and stress-free trip,” said Harteveldt.