One of Skift's travel megatrends for 2107 was that, after years of hype, travel companies are finally putting artificial intelligence (AI) to work.
A survey of senior IT executives by SITA, a Geneva-based aviation technology firm owned by airlines and airports, finds that 52 percent of airlines plan major artificial intelligence programs.
There are many ways to apply artificial intelligence, and chatbots are one of the most discussed for their potential to cut labor costs. The survey says that 14 percent of airlines and 9 percent of airports already use chatbots. Looking ahead three years, chief information officers at 68 percent of airlines say they intend to adopt artificial intelligence-driven chatbot services.
Exhibit A is Aeromexico, which since 2016 has been using a Facebook Messenger chatbot to answer routine questions from customers. Rather than a human agent reading from a phone transcript, the computer recognizes the natural language query and answers from a bank of about 500 responses.
Brian Gross, Aeromexico's vice president for digital innovation and strategy, has been one of the industry's leading proponents of adopting artificial intelligence. He told Skift's aviation reporter a few months ago that Aeromexico's platform serves about 1,000 Spanish-speaking customers per day, handling roughly as many inquiries as two full-time employees could but at a cheaper cost.
Skeptics may argue that airlines are focusing too much on artificial intelligence applications for customer service, where there may not be a great consumer benefit for such tools beyond reducing call center times for routine questions.
According to a different SITA survey on passenger behavior, more than four in five customers talk to agents to check their bags despite several airlines having self-service bag drops.
For airlines and airports, the revenue gains from artificial intelligence may be from operational, behind-the-scenes processes. On that front, SITA's survey offers hope. Over the next three years, 80 percent of airlines plan to invest in prediction and warning systems, which rely heavily on artificial intelligence.
Even so, some critics question whether the industry is doing enough. There has yet to be an industry effort to collaborate in harvesting data generated by travelers anonymously and using it as a resource for artificial intelligence research with the whole industry benefiting.
One might think that an organization like SITA might set up something like an artificial intelligence research laboratory or at least do a special industry event to encourage best practices and the sharing of ideas among the various airline fiefdoms.
SITA CEO Barbara Dalibard has told Skift that she's eager for SITA to evangelize for innovation, so perhaps the Geneva-based organization will claim a larger role in advocating for artificial intelligence.
In some ways, airlines overall were late to the mobile revolution, though there were a few exceptions like SAS that saw mobile's potential early. Even today, less than 10 percent of airline sales come via smartphones or tablets.
Will the aviation sector learn its lesson as the new tech wave of artificial intelligence comes along?