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