The rise of artificial intelligence is likely to revolutionise the way businesses operate, says Byron Calmonson of The Resourcing Hub, but people and the judgement they bring will still have a significant role as operators look for a competitive edge.

You can access the article on the Airline Business website.

Artificial intelligence solutions are already utilised in many fields of aviation, including MRO and customer service. The potential uses of this technology in air transport are endless and fascinating.

Given that the vast majority of today’s passengers book their airline tickets online, without an agent (paying a ticket price that was calculated by an AI algorithm), the end-to-end journey could relatively soon be completed without any human interaction.

Passengers will be able to board a driverless transit train from their city centre to go to the airport. Upon arrival they will go through an entirely automated process for check-in, baggage-drop, security and passport control, utilising a range of screens and machines that communicate with smartphone, biometric and other data.

Airport robots are already available and will become an increasingly familiar sight. Gilles Brentini, IT airport innovation manager at Geneva International airport, says Robbi, an airport information robot, was introduced in 2013. “We are very interested in robotics and the different roles robots could play in an airport environment,” he says. “How will passengers react to robots and what is the best way to interact with them? It is encouraging that Robbi has proven very successful at helping and guiding passengers around most areas of the airport.”

Last year, Geneva airport also hosted a trial of SITA’s robot Leo, the world’s first automated bag-drop robot. “After the initial surprise, passengers quickly understood the benefits and were amazed to see Leo carry their baggage to the drop area,” Brentini says. “The successes of Robbi and Leo prove the case for increased use of robotics to make the passenger journey more comfortable and convenient.”

“There will always be a need for human judgement, empathy as well as supervision and control” Byron Calmonson, director, The Resourcing Hub.

Airport shops and restaurants could, in the future, be unmanned, with passengers ordering, paying and being served using AI technology. Robots that could replace human shop assistants or serving staff are already in development. This year Hospi, a 5ft-tall delivery robot previously used in hospitals, will be tested at Japan’s Narita International airport travel lounge, carrying dirty dishes back to the kitchen. Hospi is similar to Savioke’s Relay room service delivery robot, which is being used at more than 50 hotels and is due to be rolled out further.

The potential for more development and utilisation of robots in the air transport domain is infinite and very exciting. Having completed an automated boarding process, passengers could take off in a pilotless plane where they would have access to self-service machines providing information, refreshments and so on. The only human interaction would be with other passengers.

Would an air transport industry with hardly any human input be more reliable, efficient and cheaper to run? Yes, perhaps. However, if all processes rely on automation without human supervision or control, the aviation sector could also become even more vulnerable to events such as cyberattacks, terrorism or sabotage. Furthermore, without any human interaction, aviation and travel could also become very dull, monotonous and impersonal.

My prediction is that AI will replace many manual, repetitive and routine jobs in the air transport world. This is good news as it means humans can be utilised elsewhere in more complex and value-adding roles, including customer-facing jobs. Great people and outstanding service will still be key factors that give airlines and other operators a competitive edge.

There will always be a need for human judgement, empathy as well as supervision and control in a multitude of scenarios. Even the most advanced learning machines would probably struggle to deal with a distressed or very ill passenger, and may not be able to process complex or unexpected requirements. People are still experts at dealing with, and understanding, people.

It is worth bearing in mind that advances in AI also create new job opportunities for humans. We will need skilled people to run the algorithms, robotics and other technology that might replace today’s jobs.

AI and robotics will, no doubt, revolutionise the way businesses operate and have a major impact on the air transport industry, but humans will always have a significant role to play; developing, managing and working alongside the machines. One thing is certain: technology is advancing at pace and aviation professionals will need to quickly get used to new ways of working. Don’t fear the future, embrace it. The robots are most definitely here to stay.