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Beyond the boarding pass: is now the moment for rapid and widespread adoption of AI in aviation?

Analysis

In Nov-2022 'OpenAI' launched a generative Artificial Intelligence (AI) tool, ChatGPT which (within days) had attracted over one million users.

Only fifteen months later, the benefits of AI-driven technology are a major talking point across the aviation industry, with some airlines and airports exploring how it can be used safely and ethically to drive technological advancements, solve industry-specific challenges, and improve passenger experiences.

Of course, AI is not new to aviation, the application of which has been successfully integrated into a wide range of processes, from baggage-handling to air traffic management.

In 2022 the 'FlyAI' webinar series, organised by Eurocontrol, sought to illustrate the many use cases of AI across the sector, proposing seven key recommendations from research to implementation of AI-driven technologies across the value chain.

There is no doubt that the industry has already adopted transformative technologies to enable accurate predictions, improve decision-making, and address environmental concerns.

However, there now lies an exciting opportunity to take a step further with sub-sets of AI, such as machine and deep learning.

Summary

  • Legacy systems and infrastructure have been holding back development...but AI's potential is clear.
  • Moving from a reactive to a predictive technology model will offer benefits for businesses and travellers alike.
  • Generative AI presents opportunity for airports and airlines not only to adapt to, but to predict passenger behaviour.
  • Security concerns remain a barrier to implementation of new technology.
  • AI offers huge potential to revolutionise the industry...but is it ready to embrace the technology?

Legacy systems and infrastructure have been holding back development...but AI's potential is obvious

As Maya Leibman, outgoing executive vice president and CIO of American Airlines said in 2022: "Touchless, seamless, stressless. We've always had this vision, but it's been hard to realize with the legacy systems and infrastructure we have".

Moving data platforms to the cloud, Ms Leibman says, allowed American Airlines to 'improve customer and operational outcomes as they happened".

The capacity to employ neural networks on historical datasets, for example, will accelerate the response to crises such as the recent COVID-19 pandemic, greatly enhancing manual processes and decision-making.

Moving from a reactive to a predictive technology model

AI can also be used to automate aircraft maintenance, to reduce costs, and to make better use of resources.

Airlines incur high costs due to delays and cancellations. With nearly 30% of the total delay time caused by unplanned maintenance, using predictive analytics alongside real time communications is an effective way of significantly reducing aircraft downtime.

Moving from a reactive to a predictive technology model is not only an efficiency driver for airports and airlines, but also a positive step for passengers who want to be kept abreast of changes and cancellations to their travel plans.

Passenger experience is set to become more seamless, and customised AI-powered biometrics with innovations such as 'free flow' technology are now at the forefront of airport operations.

Generative AI presents opportunity for airports and airlines, not only to adapt to, but to predict passenger behaviour

As Generative AI becomes more widely used it presents a unique opportunity for airports and airlines not only to adapt to, but to predict passenger behaviour - responding with personalised content, such as retail offers, terminal directions and flight information, straight to the passenger's device.

The positive knock-on effect for airports is having the knowledge to respond to changes in passenger flow and behaviour quickly, and with data-driven decision-making.

From a security perspective, predictive maintenance, machine-learning, and resource-planning are already leading to operational efficiencies.

The challenge is ensuring passengers feel that although their airport experience may be faster and less frustrating, security protocols continue to be robust and trustworthy.

But the benefits of AI reach beyond the terminal, with a marked increase in sophisticated AI integrations in ATC, crew scheduling and connectivity.

Security concerns remain a barrier to the implementation of new technology

When it comes to job security and regulatory hurdles, aviation is not alone, and security concerns are at the top of the list when it comes to the implementation of new technology.

But for aviation, every one of these concerns is exacerbated by the sheer number of processes and touchpoints involved in the movement of people within, and between, jurisdictions.

The challenge lies in regulation and governance, particularly in the use of data.

Airlines, airports and suppliers therefore need to ensure that the implementation of AI is carefully managed and monitored, with a clear plan for the way that any potential negative impacts can be addressed.

This could include developing a framework for the ethical use of AI, and establishing clear guidelines for data-sharing.

Finally, significant investment in personnel and training for AI implementation will be essential in helping to ensure that AI is used responsibly, and all stakeholders have the opportunity to benefit from - rather than being replaced by - the technology.

AI offers huge potential to revolutionise the industry...

Although - at the very start of the AI journey there is huge potential to revolutionise the industry, making it more efficient, sustainable, and profitable.

Many airports and airlines have already developed apps, sharing information on security processing times, or enabling passengers to book parking ahead of time, for example.

The next step, leveraging generative pre-trained transformers (GPTs), will introduce a level of dynamic, conversational interaction that can understand and respond to user queries in real time.

...but is the industry ready to embrace the technology?

The necessity of AI adoption in aviation is driven by a combination of pressing industry challenges, evolving global demands, and growing passenger expectations.

All this creates a compelling argument that now is an opportune time for the aviation sector to embrace AI.

The question is: whether the industry is willing to work together to create a powerful ecosystem that will maximise the potential of AI, and future-proof the industry against emerging trends and passenger demands.

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