Can the next innovation wave deal with airline disruption?

Ever since the internet collided with travel, consumers have been using the power of technology and better data to plan, and then save, on their travel.

NB: This is a viewpoint by Bala Chandran, co-founder and CEO for Flightsayer.

Consider a hypothetical traveller, John, flying from San Francisco to London next week. If John is traveling on leisure, he checks Kayak, Expedia, Orbitz, and so on, to find a flight that meets his needs.

John is faced with options to connect at Chicago, New York, or Dallas; he recognizes that connecting through Chicago in the winter is risky, and that missing his connection would be bad, but ends up connecting through Chicago anyway, basing his decision largely on price.

On business, John may be a little more flexible on price, but his corporate travel management company still prides itself on keeping costs low for John’s company. Both John and his agent understand that travel disruptions are a hassle, but lack the tools to help them make an educated trade-off between price and the likelihood of missing a connection.

The decision on if and where to connect eventually ends up being dictated by price. Beyond the hassle of a delay, what is routinely overlooked is the added cost of delays and disruptions to John’s ticket.

The first added cost is when John’s flight is delayed and he misses his connection. Spending a few extra hours at an airport may seem inconvenient, but it will cost his employer a few hours of productivity.

Secondly, John may have built a buffer into his travel plans – taking an early afternoon flight instead of the evening flight just in case of the initial delay – which will add to the loss of productivity.

Once John’s flight is delayed, he calls his travel agent to be rebooked on another flight; this last-minute change is expensive. These hidden costs aren’t small: an FAA study estimated that delays cost passengers more than $15 billion annually.

Fast forward a week, and John’s flight to Chicago ends up delayed for two hours, yet he only finds out – at best – while checking his bag at San Francisco International. John is presented with absolutely no options until the delay has been announced.

Meetings or plans John had are now left in limbo, with only limited options made available.

The travel ecosystem needs to do a better job of helping John make better itinerary decisions, whether it’s helping him choose a better flight or to react proactively to potential delays to minimize the cost of last-minute rescheduling.

Up to speed

To date, travel technology has excelled at finding travelers the cheapest flights by searching through billions of travel options from dozens of providers. The lack of predictability of future flight prices is being tackled by sites like Hopper, Options Away, and Flyr.

Recently, Upside – a platform that specializes in helping small business reduce the cost of travel by suggesting cheaper alternatives – raised $50 million in funding and received a valuation of $200 million. The travel ecosystem is doing what it has always done – helping passengers and companies spend less money on travel.

What is needed now is the next wave of innovation that help passengers with those “hidden” costs: to help them make better itinerary choices and to aid travelers when their plans are be disrupted.

The power of AI and predictive technology

Now enter Artificial Intelligence (AI). AI is a bit of a buzzword, but it’s true – the power of machine learning and data science, both important facets of the AI surge, means that platforms are slowly moving towards a state where they can better predict eventualities and react accordingly. Yet again, this technology is primarily focused on saving people money, rather than boosting efficiency and, therefore, the overall travel experience.

For example, Lola – the brainchild of Kayak co-founder Paul English – is a melding of AI and human travel agents that uses the best in AI technology to present users with an organic travel booking experience, and has developed an app that learns user preferences, better helping them book and plan their vacation or business travel.

In line with Lola, Skyscanner predicts that by 2024 travelers will be using AI to book trips on their behalf, finding the best prices and deals with limited traveler input. This is a departure from the current status quo where travelers have to hunt through algorithm-led platforms that merely predict and present the best deals.

But what we want to see – what we really need – is for this predictive technology to be applied to delays and disruptions, and fast. Drastically needed is a platform that not only arranges solutions for passenger delays when they happen, spots problems in advance, and fixes them immediately on a passengers behalf.

Essentially, what we need is for John – our traveler from earlier – to rock up to the airport, bag in hand, to find out that yes, his original flight was delayed, but that he has already been booked onto a new plane that should arrive at more or less the same time as his original flight, meaning John is in time for his meeting. This is how disruption can be minimized, and high costs reduced. Technology is heading in this direction, but we need it to get there quicker, with more attention paid to the problems caused by flight disruptions.

NB: This is a viewpoint by Bala Chandran, co-founder and CEO for Flightsayer.

Related reading:

Getting under the skin of airline disruption

Airlines using predictive technology and AI to tackle disruption and improve the experience

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About the Writer :: Viewpoints

A founding principle of tnooz was a diversity of viewpoints from across the spectrum. Viewpoints are articles by guest contributors from around the travel and hospitality industries. The views expressed are those of the author. and do not necessarily reflect those of the author's employer, or tnooz and its partners.



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  1. Matt Zito

    Flight disruption, as Bala says is a massive industry problem. A good article by Ilia Kostov, CCO of Amadeus says that it’s a $60B issue. One of the biggest things I’ve learned, as an investor in travel technology is that’s it’s very difficult to sell technology efficiency. A smart hotelier recently said to me, “Matt, if you can’t mathematically prove that I am saving money by using this technology then I can’t take the risk of spending money upfront to invest in it.” This is one of the main reasons that the industry as you say in the article builds technology to save money for the traveler. It’s just easier to sell. The business traveler more so than the leisure traveler is the most impacted by travel disruption and will ultimately value and demand this technology. When the travelers start demanding it I can see the airlines and airports on the operational side of the industry integrating it as well.

  2. Timothy O'Neil-Dunne

    There are several folks trying to provide real time flight prediction and insurance cover to match. Travel is just messy. Its not clean. The ability to turn operational excellence into hassle free excellence is somewhat diametrically opposed. If anyone still harbours any illusions that airlines will be customer centric I think we should be surprised. It is a very delicate balancing act.

  3. Scott Gillespie

    This idea of forecasting flight delays has been around for a long time. It’s a good idea, a useful improvement. Note that the first to try this, to my knowledge, was Flightcaster back in 2009. Freebird does this today, including the provision of a ticket for whichever new flight you want to complete your journey.
    Sometimes the future arrives faster than you think.


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