From wearable robots that give cargo workers superhuman strength to an airport jumbo screen that simultaneously displays different words to everyone reading it, Delta Air Lines envisions a near-future of air travel that is far more personal.
Ed Bastian, chief executive of the Atlanta-based airline, outlined the company’s five-year vision for the consumer experience Tuesday during the opening keynote address at the Consumer Electronics Show, known more commonly as CES, in Las Vegas, making him the first airline executive to do so at the nation’s largest technology convention.
Delta, which is the dominant carrier at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport, wants people to stop thinking of the airline as a commodity, but as a technology company. Its outsized presence at CES this year is a way to demonstrate that it has plenty of innovation up its sleeves.
“We are here today because we still think the gift of flight is the ultimate innovation,” Bastian said. “At Delta, our focus is on applied innovation. Today, you are going to see what travel is going to look like in 2025.”
To become a reality, the airline’s vision will require convincing customers to increasingly entrust Delta with details about their life and travel plans. All of this technology, Delta stresses, will be voluntary on an opt-in basis. Many of the technological leaps the airline unveiled Tuesday rely on expanding use of biometrics, beacons that track passengers as they move through airports and knowledge of their travel destination. For some, these advances have a slight whiff of “Big Brother.”
“Airlines historically haven’t ranked high in terms of institutions that the public trusts. People have, in recent years, been OK with Google knowing a whole lot about them in exchange for the conveniences they get from Google. Will an airline, even one that has established a rather good reputation, be able to convince the public to essentially enable them to snoop on people in the same way as these technology companies?” said Seth Kaplan, co-author of “Glory Lost and Found: How Delta Climbed from Despair to Dominance in the Post-9/11 Era.” “Maybe. But the trade-offs for that privacy have to be meaningful.”
Delta, the most profitable airline in the world, believes travelers trust them so much that they want the company to manage more of their traveling life for them.
Bastian revealed the airline’s plans for an expanded Fly Delta app that can act as a “digital concierge” by allowing other companies to plug in directly to travelers’ itineraries and plan everything from when their Lyft will pick them up to having bags and dry-cleaning delivered to their hotel room. Later this year, the app will begin notifying customers when their actual seat is boarding rather than the more general flight boarding time.
“Imagine walking through the plane choosing your seats with augmented reality,” Bastian said. “Today you can track your bags on the app, but you should also be able to track everything from a pet to a child traveling alone.”
The airline will also test a new technology this year at Detroit Metropolitan Airport called “Parallel Reality.” Still in its infancy, it is unlike anything the average consumer has experienced to date. Essentially, it’s a giant digital board visible to everyone in the main terminal lobby, but that displays personalized information — like departure gate, directions to get there, weather forecast for the destination and airport shops of interest along the way.
Up to 100 individuals can be looking at the same board at the same time and see different information, without special eyewear. Instead, the board detects where a user is standing based on their boarding pass and displays their personal information accordingly.
This technology is being developed by a startup called Misapplied Sciences. Ultimately, Delta envisions an airport in the future filled with these boards that automatically detect a passenger’s presence as they approach it and gives them directions along the way. The idea is to get travelers to look up from their phone, with these boards becoming the conduit through which Delta communicates with them.
Finally, Delta is partnering with Sarcos Robotics to become the first airline in the world to test a wearable robot with its employees whose job requires repetitive, heavy lifting, such as Delta’s cargo and maintenance workers. These exoskeletons minimize the need for brute strength. Instead, the suit carries its own weight as well as up to 200 pounds repeatedly for up to eight hours without fatigue or strain, the airline claims.
Sarcos is still refining the technology and will work closely with Delta on smoothing out its application in the workplace before widespread commercial use.