AI: Machine Revolution

1 May 2024 by Tamsin Cocks
Robot assistant on modern hotel / office reception (Credit imaginima/iStock)

Artificial intelligence is transforming the travel industry, with huge strides in data analysis and generative AI set to create seamless, personalised travel for passengers.

It’s 2034. You’re getting ready to head to the airport when Genie pings – your personal AI travel assistant. Genie has a travel update: your flight has been cancelled due to a typhoon in Singapore. Before you can even start processing the inconvenience, Genie pings again. It has checked your diary and offers the best alternatives: either catch a layover via Dubai leaving in six hours, or delay your flight until the next day.

You choose option one. Genie confirms and advises that your Uber transfer has been rescheduled and a refund processed. (Genie has also reserved a massage for you in the lounge during your layover and pre-ordered your favourite welcome drink.) Genie also drafts an email to your first client, advising of the delay and providing suitable alternative timings within your calendar. You hit send. A major travel disruption – sorted in seconds.

Now, let’s rewind to 2024. This advanced level of seamless travel management may still seem like a sci-fi dream, but the age of artificial intelligence has officially arrived and is set to transform travel in the next decade. Expect to see huge developments and customer experience improvements, with personalised recommendations, paperless airports and automated expense systems on the way.

Chatbots and travel planners

There are different functions for AI technologies. Generative AI refers to the group of programmes such as Chat GPT that generate high-quality text, images and other content.

The applications of this technology are far-reaching, primed to improve customer chatbot services by a quantum leap as well as star as your pocket-sized travel consultant.

It’s a no-brainer for hotels – or any business for that matter – to employ this technology as an immediate-response first line of customer service without the traditional need for huge staff resources. We’ve already seen positive examples from early adopters like Hilton’s chatbot Connie, or Marriott’s AI voice controls for things like lighting, temperature and entertainment systems. But the tech is improving rapidly (see our AI column for an example).

IHG Hotels & Resorts has become one of the latest to announce new tech, with the launch of a digital travel planner in partnership with Google Cloud’s AI platform, Vertex AI and Gemini models.

Guests will be able to make requests to the IHG Travel Planner using natural speech and receive personalised recommendations in response – from late-night dinner options to jazz shows or co-working spaces nearby. The planner will be incorporated into the revamped IHG One Rewards mobile app later this year, with more functions set to be unveiled in the coming months.

Jolie Fleming, chief product and technology officer at IHG Hotels & Resorts, said: “We’re making trip planning easier and more interactive for prospective travellers. Soon, guests will use the IHG One Rewards mobile app as a true mobile travel companion to build a full itinerary and book hotels in a few taps.”

Meanwhile, Marriott International’s Homes & Villas division for luxury home rentals is using Generative AI to let travellers use natural language to describe their ideal vacation – with or without a destination in mind. What does this mean? Well, travellers might say: “I need a beachfront home in the Caribbean perfect for a bachelorette party” or “I’m looking for the best cabin in the mountains with a fireplace and stunning view” and the results will find properties to match the criteria, with localised tips on topics from weather to hikes.

“With natural-language search, we’re able to play matchmaker, helping travellers effortlessly discover the perfect but perhaps unexpected property and destination among our global collection,” said Jennifer Hsieh, vice president, Homes & Villas by Marriott Bonvoy. While the above examples mimic the speech and text of humans, some companies have employed AI to create holograms and virtual people. Qatar Airways, for instance, put a face and body to its AI chatbot at ITB Berlin in March.

The airline used the occasion to introduce the industry to Sama 2.0 – an AI-powered MetaHuman cabin crew member, named after ‘sky’ in Arabic. The lifelike Sama is a holographic chatbot, which will “showcase a level of interaction that is as personal as it is functional”, offering up-to-date information and the ability to answer questions in real-time. You can find her via the Qverse, the airline’s digital platform or through the Qatar Airways app. Korean Air, meanwhile, debuted virtual humans in its latest safety video – look out for flight attendant Rina on your next trip.

Last month, Four Seasons Hotels and Resorts added hologram units to the presidential and penthouse suites at the famous Beverly Wilshire hotel. The portable Proto M units can be used to “beam in” a concierge team member to meet with VIP guests from the comfort of their room. Radisson Hotel Group, meanwhile, has launched the Radisson Meetings Dream Machine, which uses generative AI to help planners design out-of-the-box events.

Chatbot powered by AI (Credit da-kuk/iStock)

Demand for data

Behind the scenes, AI is revolutionising consumer market research. Businesses can amass huge quantities of information about customers across multiple touchpoints, which is unlocking new ways to optimise services and offerings. “The main way we’ll see AI make an impact on travel in 2024 is around data,” says José Arozarena from Tour Review, a platform for tour providers to manage online reviews. “Companies with the largest amounts of data available will benefit most and the most quickly too. AI will be able to make sense of that data more effectively, offering insights that result in better, more personalised services.”

In February, Lufthansa announced a collaboration with marketing and innovation consultant TD Reply to launch the Customer Insight Hub. The AI-powered portal mines data from countless customer interactions – from online reservations to inflight engagement and social media – and creates reports on customer experience, which can then be used to tweak the offering.

Philipp Schilchegger, head of customer insights at Lufthansa, said: “The Customer Insight Hub facilitates internal collaboration and decision-making. We have a modern, data-driven basis for continuously improving our services, creating an optimal customer experience and thus retaining our customers in the long term”.

In the same month, Vueling chose a different tack, announcing the use of Persona+ to create customer profile avatars that can help departments role-play different scenarios with fictitious passengers and generate feedback on proposals.

While data harvesting might have enormous potential, there’s understandable concern for consumers – particularly when it comes to privacy. Data breaches are still a worryingly high occurrence. Marriott International and British Airways were both fined around £20 million for GDPR lapses in 2020, while Air Europa, American Airlines and Air Canada were among hacking victims in 2023. Implementing responsible data management measures, such as data protection, efficient storage and responsible data disposal, will need to be a priority for organisations and customers alike.

At the Airport

Airports are likely to deliver some of the most visible examples of AI in the coming years, with biometric and digital solutions rapidly being adopted in the form of fingerprint and facial recognition. Anyone who’s smiled their way through passport control at the likes of Singapore Changi is likely to embrace this technology.

According to the 2024 Travel Technology Investment Trends report by Amadeus, there have been huge strides in biometrics, with 98 per cent of airports intending to implement biometric facilities and 60 per cent of airports on track to roll out biometrics across the complete airport experience in the next five years, including check-in, bag-drop, lounge and boarding.

The report confirmed that machine learning is the most important technology for travel businesses – both this year and in five years’ time, with data analytics and the cloud being seen as top investment priorities. According to IT specialists SITA, adopting this kind of technology isn’t just efficient – it’s essential. In April, the company released a white paper on biometrics entitled ‘Face the Future’, highlighting how the forecasted growth in passenger numbers (8 billion by 2040) places extraordinary pressure on airports, borders and airline resources. Existing paper-based and manual travel infrastructure simply won’t be able to cope.

Improved technology also extends to the development of “digital travel credentials” (DTC) – digital copies of acceptable identification like passports – which would speed up the process at border crossings. The white paper highlights case studies like the Star Alliance Biometric initiative, where passengers can register their biometric data via photograph to enjoy swifter, contactless processing at participating airports. Currently, this extends to the Lufthansa Group for use at Frankfurt, Munich, and Vienna, but the eventual idea is for all passengers across the network to travel without a boarding pass or smartphone.

David Lavorel, CEO of SITA, said: “Airlines and airports have learned from the congestion and disruptions seen in the past few years. Advanced data sharing and analytics tools will allow them to unite stakeholders and identify opportunities for greater efficiency and leaner operations. Solutions like total airport management and real-time insight into the management of assets and passenger flow allow for agile, collaborative responses to any disruptions.”

Turkish Airlines has provided another example of how AI can improve navigating or “way finding” through airports. The airline has deployed voice recognition software to remove language barriers, installing 100 SmartMic language translation devices at Istanbul Airport, which give non-English-speaking passengers a way to communicate with the carrier’s staff. The new device supports 52 languages and 72 accents, and allows for real-time conversation in multiple languages via a seven-inch screen.

Green AI

The impact of AI on improving operational efficiencies is also going to be huge, from dealing with flight disruptions and cancellations to managing payments and staff shortages.

According to SITA, 90 per cent of airlines already have plans to boost the efficiency of flight operations and aircraft turnaround by 2026 using technological solutions. More than half already have tech in place to optimise operations like aircraft taxiing and take-off/landing. The same is true of airports, where monitoring building and energy management systems will be particularly high on the agenda in order to tackle environmental goals.

“With industry ambitions to achieve net-zero CO2 emissions by 2050 in mind, airlines and airports are taking necessary steps towards reducing their carbon footprint, adopting digital tools for accurate monitoring and optimisation of energy consumption and emissions,” says Lavorel.

Numerous hotels are also adopting AI-boosted technologies to improve, for example, waste-management strategies. Accor’s ‘Gaïa’ allows hotels to measure and monitor their energy, water, waste and carbon footprint performance to help track their sustainability initiatives. Meanwhile, Iberostar has employed the Winnow system to show precisely what is being thrown away (via cameras and other sensors) and deliver reports to the chef with the cost, weight and quantity of food discarded.

Whether it’s counting leftover croissants, optimising fuel levels or planning the itinerary of your dreams, AI looks set to be the new must-have travel companion. See you in ten years, Genie!

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The cover of the Business Traveller June 2024 edition
The cover of the Business Traveller June 2024 edition
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