Sustainability, Artificial Intelligence, Augmented Reality, Gender Equality, emerging technologies, biometrics, real-time tracking… In his keynote speech at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) 2020 in Las Vegas last week (07-10JAN20), Delta Air Lines’ CEO, Ed Bastian ticked all the boxes, proudly outlining a host of innovative activities and reeling off performance statistics other airlines can but dream of.
Delta, today, is the largest, most awarded airline in the world. It is no surprise that the airline CEO was asked to speak at this year’s CES, a global conference on innovation in consumer
technologies. Its list of IT projects is impressive. Also, the fact that Delta has time and again won Great Place to Work trophies for Gender and Diversity is actively demonstrated in the warm
way in which Bastien asks his colleagues on to the stage to explain the reasoning behind the various initiatives. “Our people are the Delta differenc,” he says and obviously means
Further diversity plans include measures for a more balanced gender representation in the airline’s STEM (science, technology, engineering, and maths) factions. Delta announced that it would be working together with the Society of Women Engineers and Girls Who Code to ensure clear, supporting recruitment policies as well as community programs to encourage women to get involved in these fields.
“We never look back – we only keep climbing”
Delta’s claim “Keep climbing” is very much an applied mission. Bastian outlines the airline’s direction: “Over the past 5 years, we have invested billions to turn Delta’s technology […] to an award-winning digital advantage. […] We get a lot of fresh ideas through partnerships with entrepreneurs and start-ups […] who are pushing the envelope…”.
The showcase IT protagonist at the new Fly Delta app which Delta aims will act as “a day-of-travel digital concierge” and contribute to its goal of “providing a more stress-free travel experience for our customers.” Future visions include arranging passengers’ airport transfers (Delta has partnered with Lyft, linking Delta SkyMiles and Lyft accounts to allow customers to earn miles with their transfers), or picking up luggage from the traveler’s home and ensuring it is transferred directly to their hotel at destination, for example. (On a side-note: Delta boasts just 0.005% cases of mishandled baggage, so the chance the luggage transfer will work is incredibly high). Together with Misapplied Sciences, Delta aims to launch the first-ever PARALLEL REALITY™ beta experience for customers departing Detroit Metropolitan Airport this year. The goal is to tailor the airport environment experience to the individual customer using opt-in technology that speaks the customer’s language, displaying relevant information or allowing them to choose customized entertainment.
Carbon offsetting by planting trees
Delta will invest over $100,000 in The International Small Group & Tree Planting Program (TIST). This is a program aimed at reversing the catastrophic effects that that deforestation, drought, and famine have on the livelihoods of subsistence farmers in countries such as Kenya and Uganda. Its focus is tree planting and conservation farming. Additionally, Delta will be supporting other verified projects to offset its carbon footprint, working with Global Citizen's Global Goal Live campaign to end extreme poverty by 2030 by ensuring carbon neutral efforts in this respect – already Delta had made travel to CES carbon neutral as a case in point. Bastian confirms: “One of our first steps with Global Citizen is committing to make the Global Goal Live campaign entirely carbon neutral through investments that address poverty and environmental sustainability.” With Global Goal Live, Global Citizen and Teneo, the global CEO advisory firm, aim to close the $350 billion funding gap in the 59 poorest countries in the world to reach the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals focused on sustainability, gender equality, education, health, and food.
On the recycling front, Bastien takes a minute to point out that on-board blankets are made from recycled plastic waste and tells the CES audience that they have each been gifted one for the conference, and that 2 of those blankets include free Delta tickets.
While the majority of IT projects shown were mainly for the benefit of passenger travel, Delta is just as innovative on the cargo side. Already back in 2016, it became the first major airline to test Bluetooth tracking technology and aimed to have full coverage on all of Delta’s ULDs (over 1,400 readers) at over 200 airports by the end of 2018. At CES, Bastian outlined Delta’s collaboration with Sarco Robotics in the field of exoskeletons to assist with heavy lifting in the warehouse or baggage area. The world leader in exoskeleton development, Sarco demonstrated its Guardian XO. This battery-powered, full-body exoskeleton not only supports human performance and endurance during work, it more importantly also helps to prevent injury and reduce back problems. Worn as a robotic suit, the Guardian XO does the heavy lifting and enables staff to repeatedly lift up to 200 pounds over a period of up to eight hours at a time without strain or fatigue.
Employing AI to streamline efficiencies
Though not given a specific product name, Bastian described developments in employing artificial intelligence to enhance the airline’s operational processes during this new decade – mainly addressing weather disruptions and improving flight operations – a bonus for cargo transportation, too, of course.
“We’ve cancelled cancellations, but we still have to deal with weather variables like hurricanes or a nasty Nor’easter, and that’s why the team in our operations and customer center is developing the industry’s first machine learning platform to help ensure a smooth operation even in extreme conditions. The system uses operational data to run scenarios and project future outcomes while simulating all the variables of running a global airline with more than 1,000 planes in the sky,” Bastian said.
The tool, due to be launched this Spring, will aid in smoothing operational disruptions by providing an ever-improving series of hypothetical scenarios to support airline staff in making decisions on how to handle the situation. It will also consider information from a flight weather tablet app developed by Delta’s pilots to give a 3D view of their flight path and predict where turbulence may occur, enabling them to adjust their course accordingly.
Delta is the first airline to actively use AI to such an extent and will benefit not only from its predictions, but also gain from post-incident analyses. The possibilities appear endless and Delta looks to be setting the scene in the aviation world.
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