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January 11, 2024

Where the action is for AI in aviation

From strategic pricing to optimizing baggage dropoffs, airlines are starting to make extensive and widespread use of AI.

In the news

When it comes to AI and aviation, much attention has been focused on automated flights. But that's actually a ways off. Where AI is really making a difference is beyond the cockpit.

At an industry confab, an American Airlines official recently said AI will be “everywhere”—the booking process, maintenance, customer service and more, potentially boosting productivity to the tune of billions of dollars for carriers. Swiss International Air Lines saved $5.4 million last year by optimizing more of its flights, for example, and Lufthansa reduced costly cancellations by using AI-powered weather forecasting. JetBlue Ventures, a subsidiary of JetBlue, has invested in eight AI travel-related startups, including one focused on improving pricing forecasting, which could boost profitability.

AI-related improvements aren’t limited to the top and bottom lines; safety and passenger convenience, too, could be improved as AI/ML predicts traffic patterns with greater precision and reduces bottlenecks. Delta Air Lines is even using the technology to improve everybody’s least favorite component of air travel by streamlining the delivery of baggage to the gate.

We decided to check in with an expert on what leaders in this vital sector are doing with AI—and what they should be doing.

The Cognizant take

Despite headwinds to the travel industry created by economic uncertainty and global political circumstances, “This is a moment of optimism for aviation,” says Hemant Singhal, Cognizant’s Head of Data, AI & Analytics, EMEA and APJ. “To keep the desire to travel alive, aviation companies need to reset how they interact with customers, run their operations and drive profitable growth—and technologies like AI can help.”

He adds, however, that many companies in this sector feel shackled by aging legacy systems. “AI and other new technologies are often viewed as abstract and challenging to implement,” he says. That’s a shame, because aviation has a strong track record on innovation. “After all, this is one of the most precision-oriented and technology-heavy industries,” Singhal points out. “It’s the industry that pioneered modern revenue management, network optimization tools, simulation training and global distribution systems.”

Commercial airlines that fully embrace AI technologies have much to gain. Customer experience is one area of low-hanging fruit. Singhal says companies should create “segments of one”—that is, hyper-personalized touchpoints tailored to individual customers’ needs, preferences and behaviors. “This is not only about increasing conversion rates,” he says, “but about providing each customer with an end-to-end experience adapted to their specific context.”

Additionally, in an industry that (like many) faces a persistent labor shortage, AI/ML should be used to run airlines’ operations efficiently. “AI is not meant to replace the human touch but to enhance and scale it, acting as a force multiplier,” Singhal says. The idea is to free up staff to focus on tasks and decisions that require human empathy and thoughtful intervention.

This is just the beginning of beneficial AI use cases for aviation, Singhal points out. “Immersive pilot training. Route optimization. Reducing time-to-market with aircraft while ensuring compliance with rigorous safety standards. Ensuring high levels of asset availability through predictive maintenance.” Everything is on the table. Small wonder, then, that his big-picture advice for industry players is that “the only wrong move is no move.”

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