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Artificially intelligent

Aviation has frequently been accused of lagging behind other industries when it comes to artificial intelligence. Stephanie Taylor rounds up the ways in which airlines are catching on

Airlines and airports are now embracing new technologies and turning to artificial intelligence (AI) to support their customer service. Over the next three years 52% of airlines plan major AI programmes or R&D and 45% of airports will invest in R&D in the next five years, according to the SITA 2017 Air Transport IT Trends Insights.

Airlines are looking at how technology can help minimise the impact of disruption on the passenger experience and their business. Over the next three years, the SITA report says 80% of them plan to invest in major programmes or R&D into prediction and warning systems, which rely heavily on AI.

The International Air Transport Association (IATA) and Airports Council International (ACI) have noticed AI’s value too. In October 2017, they came together to launch the New Experience in Travel and Technology (NEXTT) initiative, aiming to optimise the use of emerging technologies in the face of growing passenger numbers. AI is highlighted as a priority, specifically in relation to its ability to improve real-time decision-making and, therefore, efficiency.

As detailed in a 2017 report titled ‘The Future is Predictable’, SITA itself is using AI to tackle flight disruptions, which the company says can cost the air transport industry $25 billion each year.

Since 2016, the SITA Lab has been evaluating disruption detection and prediction capabilities. To do so, it has collected a massive amount of existing data on flight movements, weather, and flight delays, but has also begun mining three new data sources: Notices to Airmen (NOTAMs), news feeds and Twitter feeds.

There was much work involved. SITA decoded information from the NOTAMs using the capabilities of IBM Watson – a question answering computer system capable of answering questions posed in natural language – which it trained to understand air transport specific acronyms.


For news feeds, the company employed natural language processing to find publicly available news containing information that could affect air transport stakeholders’ operations. Twitter is being used to flag problems reported by passengers at airports.

These data streams are now being harnessed by SITA to create short-term (under 48 hours) and long-term (48 to 72 hour) delay prediction platforms. Eventually, a delay predictions algorithm and disruption warning feed will be incorporated into SITA’s services to the air transport industry.

Customer service is one of the most important facets in air travel, but famously the need for it begins when passengers start thinking about booking flights, not just when they get to the airport. This is why chatbots, which are based on AI and machine learning, are becoming prevalent. Indeed, SITA’s aforementioned IT trends report predicts that 68% of airlines and 42% of airports plan to adopt AI-driven chatbot services by 2020.

Mirabeau, the digital agency headquartered in Amsterdam, helped create Transavia Flight Search on Facebook Messenger, and it pronounced in its case study of the project that the reason for such expansion in this area is the growing use of mobile through applications like WhatsApp. The company stated, “chat is quickly becoming the interaction of choice among mobile users.” >>

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