Humanity + Technology: Emerging Trends in Air Travel

Humanity + Technology: Emerging Trends in Air Travel

TravelConnect 2018 featured dynamic discussions on emerging technology — including AI, robotics, predictive analytics, virtual reality and data-driven personalization.

In 1965, philosopher Hubert Dreyfus compared artificial intelligence (AI) to “alchemy,” writing that “no chess program could even play amateur chess.”

Just over 30 years later, in 1997, IBM’s Deep Blue supercomputer defeated world chess champion Garry Kasparov in a chess match under tournament regulations, stunning the world and illuminating the vast potential of AI.

Shawn DuBravac, president and chief executive officer of Avrio Institute, opened TravelConnect 2018 with this and several other stories of technological evolution, including voice recognition and the smartphone. At version 1.0, these technologies were extremely limited — even clumsy — but over time, their advancement began to accelerate rapidly.

“Innovation moves slowly,” DuBravac stressed, “until, suddenly, it doesn’t.”

Today, voice recognition technology has reached human parity and is now being used to enhance the customer experience while reducing operational costs. The smartphone has sped past critical-mass global adoption and has become integral to the lives of consumers.

So, what’s the next big disruptive technology in air travel? TravelConnect 2018 explored this question at length, featuring several dynamic discussions on artificial intelligence (AI), predictive analytics, virtual reality (VR) and data-driven personalization — technologies and initiatives that will ultimately create a more seamless, optimized traveler experience.

Rich Content is King

Throughout the conference, airlines, travel agencies and technology providers echoed the need for richer content in order to provide a more transparent, consistent experience to travelers — no matter where or how they choose to buy.

“The customer’s saying, ‘Know me. Personalize things for me. Communicate with me in a different way,’” said Stephen Thompson, Qantas’ senior executive vice president for the Americas, New Zealand, Pacific Islands and Japan. “It comes back to the customer having the choice, and how we can actually demonstrate the value of massive investments in new aircraft and seats, services, and the options that people have. That’s the future.”

While New Distribution Capability (NDC) played a substantial role in these discussions, the XML schema is just one example of how airlines are delivering richer information through the agency channel. Speakers at TravelConnect moved beyond the schema to address the overarching priorities of industrywide transformation.

“Innovation moves slowly until, suddenly, it doesn’t.”
Shawn DuBravac, Avrio Institute

Sabre Airline Solutions’ Greg Gilchrist, senior vice president and chief customer officer, stressed the importance of connecting disparate distribution strategies into unified platforms. “The issue is that every single airline and every single customer has a slightly different view of what they want to do,” Gilchrist said. “So, for us, we thought the smartest thing was to create an API ecosystem so that, if airline X or agency Y want to have a local digital developer mock something up for them, I don’t get in the way. I enable it via the platform, and it’s put together in a way where the workflow or customer experience can be different, with the look and feel, on a case-by-case basis.

“Everybody’s so anxious to move quickly to bring new forms of innovation to the marketplace that you just can’t be in a scaled business and doing retail-type work from a technical consultant standpoint at the same time,” Gilchrist concluded. Moderator Miriam Moscovici, senior director of innovation and intelligence for BCD Travel, laughed and added, “Doing something 15 times a week is cute and fun. Doing it 40 billion times a week is not cute and fun anymore.”

Discussions also explored the unique travel and tourism opportunities surrounding imagery and video. Travelport’s Vice President and General Manager, Erika Moore, shared about Travelport Digital’s collaboration with EasyJet, which allows customers to book destination travel through Instagram photos. Amadeus’ Stewart Alvarez, head of industry affairs for the Americas, highlighted Amadeus Video Solutions, the company’s interactive software-as-a-service (SaaS) video platform for travel companies.

Throughout the conference, airlines, travel agencies and technology providers echoed the need for richer content in order to provide a more transparent, consistent experience to travelers — no matter where or how they choose to buy.

“The infrastructure is being laid to really deliver rich content,” Alvarez said. “I think it’s a great time to be in the travel and tourism industry. It’s great for consumers, [who] are better empowered, it’s great for providers of any nature — whether it’s airlines, rail, hoteliers — because they really can take advantage of the technology to distribute and merchandize their product. And for us, as IT providers, we’re having the time of our lives trying to keep up with this stuff. It’s a lot of fun.”

Looking to the future, DuBravac mentioned it would be fascinating to see consumers plan trips through image searches or make travel purchases in a virtual environment. For example, if a consumer is using VR to have an immersive experience of a destination, they could be presented with travel deals within the virtual interface — and seamlessly book with the credit card on file.

We Got Bots: Automation, Prediction and Personalization

Netflix is often referenced as the archetype for a successful online business — but one aspect of the company’s operations caught the interest of TravelConnect attendees: Its recommendation engine.

“If you got a bad movie, they wanted to make sure it was followed up with a better movie,” DuBravac said, “and so they designed and spent a lot of energy and effort to integrate the recommendation engine into the experience. Still today, those companies, whether it’s Amazon Prime or Netflix, are using a tremendous amount of information to create meaningful experiences for the individual user.

“It doesn’t overlay on top of the experience: It is the experience.”

In a later panel on innovative travel agency business models, Hopper’s Dakota Smith shared details about its recommendation engine, which the agency uses to suggest new destinations to its travelers.

“We spend a lot of time working on discovering the true intent of users,” said Smith. “We’re working to move them to different destinations and dates that they’re actually more likely to convert on. When users install Hopper, they’re months away from making a booking decision, let alone traveling. So when they tell you where they want to go, you can’t actually take it literally. That’s a signal of something they’re thinking about, but it’s not necessarily the trip they will take. And so, we’ve experimented with and rolled out a recommendation engine that uses machine learning to contact them with other things they might be more interested in buying. And what we’re seeing is that users who otherwise would not have converted, end up taking these other trips that may match their schedule a little more.”

“As IT providers, we’re having the time of our lives trying to keep up with this stuff. It’s a lot of fun.” – Stewart Alvarez, Amadeus

The GDS panel explored the concept of robotics, with moderator Moscovici asking the group, “You got bots?”

“We got bots,” said Gilchrist. He shared how Sabre is using chatbots to reduce call volume from distressed customers and alleviate congestion while providing a great customer experience. Alvarez noted that Amadeus is increasing automation to enable processes to work more efficiently. He noted that, as NDC accelerates, it’s important that the infrastructure is able to support the increasingly complex technology that sits on top of it.

“We do have an army of robots, just so you know,” Moore joked. “Our main focus for robotics and artificial intelligence is primarily around search optimization and making that alignment between the traveler, the agency and the airline. What’s relevant for the customer is that you’re predicting what’s relevant to them, and that is massive in terms of how you come across to the traveler. For the airline, you’re actually reducing the number of hits to the system.”

Transforming Technology and Mindsets

Technology infrastructure underpins the air travel industry’s vision for a more evolved distribution landscape. TravelConnect featured a panel of technology executives from ARC, FROSCH Travel, Amadeus and United Airlines, moderated by Hans Brechbühl of the SDA Bocconi School of Management, to discuss how major travel companies are overhauling technology and processes to deliver a more sophisticated and seamless front-end experience for customers.

The panelists agreed that, in addition to shedding legacy systems and creating more flexible, open infrastructure, the air travel industry must also shed its legacy processes and mindset.

“The status quo needs to be challenged in every process that we have,” said ARC’s Vice President and Chief Information Services Officer, Dickie Oliver. “We were talking about reimagining the product, the process and the bundle. We have to get away from that mindset and know that we can re-imagine things much differently and set that paradigm to the side.”

Tye Radcliffe, United Airlines’ director of distribution, agreed that the legacy mindset often hinders efficiency. He referenced the electronic miscellaneous document (EMD), which airlines use to collect fees for ancillary products. The only reason the EMD exists today is because the e-ticket was an exact replication of a paper ticket without any revisions or added flexibility. “Instead of making it open and flexible,” Radcliffe said, “We just took the paper and made it electronic, and we couldn’t figure out where to put a bag fee, so we made another document. We have to get rid of these documents at some point. Trying to get the customers into an experience that’s seamless and easy to deal with, those type of legacy processes, in my opinion, have to go away.”

The status quo needs to be challenged in every process that we have.” -Dickie Oliver, ARC

Oliver added, “As a discipline, we’ve had to say ‘no’ in the past — there are just certain things we couldn’t do given the legacy debt we were dealing with or the technology at hand. But I think we’re at an inflection point where that’s not the case any longer,” said Oliver. “There’s not much we can’t do today, given the pace at which technology is changing. Now, the answer is ‘yes, absolutely, we can do that.’ And I think we get too caught up in the answer of ‘no’ as the historical answer — but that should not stop us from understanding and re-creating and re-imagining the experience our customers want from us.”

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“An explosion of data requires entirely new processes,” DuBravac said as he concluded his story about world chess champion Garry Kasparov after losing to IBM’s Deep Blue computer.

“At the time, everybody said, ‘Chess is done. Nobody’s going to play chess when a computer beats the world chess champion.’ So [Kasparov] started working and experimenting and exploring and inventing areas in freestyle chess where you could play any iteration of chess — with grand masters by themselves, with computer systems by themselves, or a mix of humans plus computers. And what he found in these tournaments was that it wasn’t the grand masters winning, and it wasn’t the computers winning. It was a mix of computers and humans.

“These new services, these new offerings that are entering our industry are going to require entirely new ways of thinking about it — entirely new processes that mix human and computer together to bring to the surface what they both have to offer.”


Registration for TravelConnect 2019 is now open! Join us October 3–4, 2019, at the Lansdowne Resort and Spa in Leesburg, VA, just a few minutes outside Washington, D.C. To register or for more information about the 2019 conference, click here.

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About the author

Megan Leader is a senior brand and content strategist for ARC. She writes about air travel data, trends and destinations for readers throughout the travel industry. An avid traveler, Megan loves to explore art, design and food culture in cities around the world.