AI in aviation: the real opportunity is a more human experience

Javed Malik explores how AI enhances airport interactions, fosters inclusivity, and redefines the journey

AI in aviation: the real opportunity is a more human experience
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Opinion by Javed Malik, Managing Partner of Ink+, Advisory Board Chairman, Ink Innovation

I was talking to someone the other day about the future of airports, about the passenger experience, and how it relates to biometrics, AI and all that. He used the word ‘seamless’. And, really, I’m the wrong guy to be using that word with. I say ‘connected journeys’, and maybe the distinction doesn't seem enormous.

Let me explain.

‘Seamless’ implies a journey with little to no human contact. And the idea that what we all want is ‘no human contact’ flies in the face of everything we know about the human species. We are social animals. What we don’t want is low-quality interactions. Being pushed about, feeling like livestock, being grunted at. If we haven’t enjoyed interactions at the airport in the past, it’s because they were low-quality.

It’s about how we make you feel

What we do know about people is that we all crave two things: status and belonging. Years ago in India we were trying to hire people to work as ground handlers. And the uptake was very low, people saw the job as essentially a porter, a low status job. A job that might affect your chances of getting married, and of your chance of attaining the things that are important to you in life. 

So as part of the recruitment process, we created a kind of Bollywood musical, where the protagonist was a ground handler. Ramp Agent, he was the hero of the story. His job was clearly positioned as important and he was the resourceful one. The catalyst of change. At the end he got the girl. 

We ended up getting far more applications than we had positions, because the story tapped into the basic human drives for belonging and status. It gave the potential workers a sense of the role that fitted with the way they wanted to see themselves.

How can AI help here? The AI helps when it partners with human beings. At the moment the aviation industry is having a tough time retaining staff in many of the low-skilled positions. Workers don’t feel appreciated, and their interactions with passengers are usually low-quality, if they have them at all. 

Making our staff feel valued

They feel like they’re a hoop to jump through, rather than a person who belongs. They’re not afforded respect, so they feel low status. And they’re going on strike. And as these are positions that require training and experience, this causes problems for the airlines and the passengers. 

In the near future, we’ll be able to automate the monotonous aspects of these jobs. Which means the staff will be freed up for better human interactions. AI is great at automating the baseline airport experience. What humans are great at is understanding that the airport experience is not always the same, even for the same person.

Think about how much support you’d require when travelling alone for business. Then compare it to travelling with your children and your parents on holiday. It’s quite a different experience. 

That’s before you consider the airport experience from the perspective of older people, and around 20% of people in Europe are over 65 years old today. Contrast that with some Sub-Saharan African countries, where the average age is around 20. These airports need to find ways to ensure a pleasant passenger experience for all these people. 

Inclusivity enhanced by AI

Staff who are trained to be sensitive to neurodiverse or physically disabled individuals are important too. The AI will be able to identify people with particular needs, assuming they’ve shared these details. But then it will pass this information to a sensitively-trained professional to identify if these passengers need any extra help.

I’m a Muslim, and religion is often a detail on many passports in the Far East and Middle East. I’d appreciate a staff member approaching me, and not necessarily making assumptions, but simply asking me if I need directions to a prayer room, or to a halal restaurant that’s offering family discounts if I’m travelling with kids, for example too.

If AI does this through some interaction – or even no interaction at all – it could feel creepy and invasive. If a human being does it, I feel seen as an individual. I feel like I have status, I’m important to them, and the airline has included me. 

My kids will then grow up seeing the airport experience as a positive thing, rather than a stressful one, where Dad shouts a lot. They’ll take that positive experience with them as they grow up.

Bringing back the awe factor

They’ll see the airport experience the way it was originally – as a wonder, a meeting point with the world, a place of diversity, and new realities – and this is what they’ll teach their own kids.

The future isn’t decided. We humans have the choice. We can decide how we want the future to be and the role AI will have in that.

About the Author

Javed is the Chairman of the Advisory Board of Ink Innovation. He has been in aviation for over 27 years and held Group and C-suite level roles across full service carriers and low cost airlines, ground handling service providers and airport operators.

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