About to Miss a Connecting Flight? United Thinks AI Can Help You Make It in Time

Skift Take

When airlines face an issue, they don’t just need to deal with passengers. They also need to worry about the crew and where the planes go next. United is hoping AI can help.

What’s an airline to do when air-traffic control says it can only land 20 planes when it was supposed to land 60. Which planes get to land and which get diverted? Where are the crew supposed to be heading next? Are connecting passengers going to make their next flight?

“This math problem is really complicated to do in real time,” Jason Birnbaum, chief information officer of United Airlines, said at the Skift Data+AI Summit in New York Tuesday.

Faced with that potential scenario among thousands of other possible complications, the company implemented AI technology called Connection Saver to help provide solutions a few years ago and has seen widespread improvements — and probably a lot fewer grumpy passengers. 

More recently, United has begun using the information to communicate with passengers.

“We had a lot of debate, like, ‘Should you tell people that you’re holding the plane? Like, would that make it worse or better?’ And so we let people know that we’re trying to get you to the plane so they don’t stop at Starbucks,” Birnbaum said. 

But it’s not just the incoming passengers that are getting the messages.

“We actually let the passengers know on the plane why we’re holding and I don’t know if anyone’s experienced this, but it’s an amazing sort of moment of humans coming together, because everyone who gets the text says, usually knows what this is about, and when the customers finally get on, and they’re sort of disheveled and discombobulated and breathing hard, and then the whole plane cheers. Everyone claps.” 

United still has its work cut out. It’s piloting generative AI to figure out more complicated issues like rebooking, which on the face of it seems like a simple fix. 

“Sometimes it’s, well, would you rather go tomorrow? Would you rather go tonight? Would you rather drive, go to a different airport and drive? And so thinking through how that conversation plays out is really the challenge in this space, and we’re working on it, but I think it will be a few minutes before we have that perfected,” Birnbaum said.

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