At CES, Delta CEO reveals new tech likely to change airline industry

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CEO Ed Bastian looks on as a Delta employee uses an exoskeleton to lift 150 pounds. Source: Delta Air Lines

For several years, Delta has been the leading major U.S. airline in terms of operational and financial performance. But early this month, the carrier made an emphatic public statement about its intent to be a technology leader as well. 

Delta’s moment in the technology spotlight lasted more than an hour on the morning of Jan. 7, when CEO Ed Bastian stood on the stage of the Palazzo Ballroom in Las Vegas’ Venetian resort, delivering a keynote address at CES (formerly the Consumer Electronics Show). It was a first: No other CEO of a major U.S. airline had ever keynoted the country’s leading technology show. 

Analysts said it was a smart decision. 

“I would say it’s a very strong PR move,” said Norm Rose, senior technology analyst for Phocuswright. But Rose also stressed that he was impressed with the presentation, especially as it related to Delta’s focus on personalization.

As with all sorts of other industries, the digital age has made technology increasingly important to airlines  --  and not just technologies that deal with aircraft. Artificial intelligence and machine learning offer airlines the potential to optimize revenue management, improve distribution capabilities, fine-tune weather and turbulence forecasting and personalize customer service, to cite just a few examples. 

Atmosphere Research Group founder Henry Harteveldt said, “What is going to happen in the future is technology becomes part of how an airline competes for customers and keeps or loses them.”

Delta, which has been investing $500 million annually in recent years on technology, appears to agree. On the carrier’s Jan. 13 earnings call, Bastian said Delta estimates it generated $200 million in incremental revenue in 2019 due to digital investments such as new-generation booking tools and the development of the capability of using SkyMiles to purchase upgrades.

At CES, Bastian discussed a dizzying array of innovations that Delta either has set for rollout, are under development or are already on its websites. 

One of the most eye-catching, literally, is shared flight information screens at airports that are to be tailored to the individual traveler  --  in real time. Delta and partner Misapplied Sciences will introduce the technology, known as parallel reality, with a beta trial in Detroit. 

The technology, Delta said, “allows multiple customers to see personalized content tailored to their unique journey on a single digital screen at the exact same time and in their preferred language.”

Misapplied Sciences said nearly 100 travelers can look at a single screen and see personalized content because “pixels can simultaneously project up to millions of light rays of different colors and brightness. Each ray can then be software-directed to a specific person.”

Another head-turner presented by Bastian at CES was a battery-powered exoskeleton developed in conjunction with Delta partner Sarcos Robotics. On the stage, a Delta employee who had been outfitted in the suit appeared to lift a 150-pound barbell as if it was an ordinary grocery bag. Delta envisions providing exoskeleton suits to ramp workers and baggage handlers to improve efficiency and reduce on-the-job injuries. 

Many of the other innovations and concepts Bastian discussed don’t have quite as much coolness factor, but they offer plenty of practicality. Throughout the presentation, he emphasized the company’s goal of turning its client-facing app into what it calls a digital concierge. 

The next improvement, to be rolled out later this month, will notify customers when their specific seat, rather than just their flight, is boarding. Leveraging partnerships, such as the one with Lyft, Bastian sketched a vision in which the app would proactively schedule transit to the airport based upon road conditions, track and provide notifications about a child who is traveling alone that day and help arrange for flyers’ bags to be picked up from their home and delivered directly to a hotel at their destination.

He also outlined Delta’s vision for turning seatback screens into passengers’ personal in-flight hubs. Phones would be synced to those screens. WiFi would be free, and passengers could connect with other passengers in-flight. Delta SkyMiles could be used to pay for all the items that aren’t free.

Rose said that many of the concepts put forth by Bastian would bolster Delta’s already top standing among U.S. business travelers. 

“When we talk about personalization, we are really targeting the frequent traveler,” he said. “I think there is a lot of value in that type of personalization.”

He cautioned, however, that developing a new technology, such as parallel reality flight information screens, is just part of the challenge. 

“The most difficult part of the industry is taking some startup technology and actually going beyond proof of concept,” Rose said. “Bringing that into operations and seeing how it affects the normal way of doing business is not easy to do.”

Harteveldt, too, was bullish on Delta’s emphasis on personalization, though he said Delta is also investing in tech improvements that Bastian chose not to discuss at CES, such as enhancements to its in-house passenger service system, Deltamatic. 

In the carrier’s earnings call this month, Bastian also said that Delta continues working with GDSs to improve their display capabilities for the carrier’s differentiated products. 

Harteveldt emphasized that Delta isn’t alone among U.S. airlines in innovating with technology, even if competing carriers haven’t presented their innovations on as large a stage as CES. United, for example, began using its Connection Saver platform last summer, which tells the airline when it can hold a departing flight at a hub for late-arriving connecting passengers without causing it to be late.

“It’s as important for an airline to invest in technology for its business as it is to invest in new airplanes,” Harteveldt said.

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