Skift Take

The airline industry operates largely on decades-old systems. Without those being updated, integrating AI will be a challenge.

Series: Skift Global Forum 2023

Skift Global Forum was held in New York City on September 26-28, 2023. Read coverage of the event at the link below.

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The chief digital officer of Delta Air Lines sees the latest advancements of AI as a way to connect the historically fragmented customer experience. 

Eric Phillips discussed some of Delta’s vision Wednesday morning onstage during the 2023 Skift Global Forum in New York City. 

The session — about the future role of AI in travel — was a conversation between Phillips and Ben Ellencweig, a senior partner with McKinsey & Company. It was moderated by Wouter Geerts, head of research for Skift. 

The talk was in conjunction with the release of a new report entitled, “How AI Can Unlock The Promise of Travel,” produced by Skift Research in collaboration with McKinsey.

Below are some of the most notable statements the panelists made about the future of AI in travel.

A Better Customer Experience

Phillips went over the vision of how AI can make a better customer experience.

  • “AI is going to be an important tool for us to use. And I think that the overall vision that we’re on … is how do you use the digital tools that are available out there, the technology and systems, to connect things better.” 
  • “I think that’s really cool that AI is going to help us unlock for what that experience is, whether you’re interacting with someone physically, or you’re taking care of something yourself on a mobile device. That’s the vision, though: How can you make that much more seamless, much more intuitive, much simpler. Don’t make the customer deal with the complexity that the airline is managing.”
  • “It’s not just revenue, and it’s not just efficiency. All those things have to come together. In the end, investing in systems has to make the employee experience better, when they’re addressing and interacting with customers. That makes the customer experience better. The revenue play is: ‘I had a good experience, I’m coming back.’”
  • “​​You can develop all this technology, all these systems, all these tools — you have to really start with, ‘Will they use it?’ It’s not just building these tools and using this data for the sake of building a tool and using data. “Adoption management is critically important for the customer, for the employees, when they’re thinking about changing the way those interactions need to occur.”

Updating Old Systems 

The airline industry, like the rest of the travel industry, operates largely on decades-old systems. Without those being updated, the question is how the industry will integrate AI.

It’s not a simple process, but Phillips said Delta has been figuring it out:

  • “You have to be really creative about what you’re putting them around. You can’t just go out and re-platform everything all at once. That’s hugely expensive, but it’s extremely disruptive. You continue to find ways to innovatively put things around the systems that can enable the things you want to do.” 

Ellencweig of McKinsey said generative AI can actually help the process, especially with writing the code that’s needed: 

  • “Gen. AI can actually write the code and help transfer code … in a massive, speedy way that you cannot have done before. The travel industry is probably past the yellow zone; we’re in the red zone about upgrading some infrastructure. Gen. AI can actually help us make that leap.” 

How to Experiment with AI

Ellencweig of McKinsey said all executives should start considering the role of AI in the future of their company. He outlined three steps they should take:

  • “One, educate. Make sure that, by end of year … every employee touches generative AI just to educate themselves about the power of it.” 
  • “Second, experiment, even if it’s going to fail. It’s not going to fail, by the way — it’s going to be really productive or extremely productive. Experiment, because you need to understand how to work with different vendors, how to fix your lazy systems.”
  • “Thirdly, scale. This is not about synthesis or cold summarization; this is about reimagining customer experience. Redesign your workflows to create something much, much better, not incremental.”

Skift Global Forum 2023 Coverage


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Tags: airline, artificial intelligence, delta, delta air lines, mckinsey and company, new york city, sgf2023, skift global forum, skift live

Photo credit: Eric Phillips, Delta's Chief Digital Officer at Skift Global Forum 2023 Skift

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