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Robotics vs. Demographics: The Big Battle To Come

Skift Take

As the world ages more, the travel industry will be forced to adopt AI tech in their operations.

The travel industry will have to figure out tech solutions to offset the workforce declines that come with an aging population.  

The industry is already struggling to find workers. “A nationwide shortage of workers is preventing hotels from regaining all the jobs we lost to the pandemic,” said a spokesperson for the American Hotel & Lodging Association.

Based on current demographic trends, around one out of five people in the world will be over the age of 65 by 2054, according to the United Nations and World Population Prospects Project. That’s up from one out of 10 in 2024.

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There won’t be as many young people to fill the ranks. People are living longer while having fewer kids in the West, which translates into an aging society and long-term population decline, said Dr. Paul Morland, demographer and author of “The Human Tide.”  

Amid the demographic transition, AI and other tech will be needed to support front desks, customer service, sales, cleaning, delivery and other points of interaction with travelers. If AI can’t fill or support these jobs, service quality will decline.

It will take time, but the industry is already working on it. Take South Korea-based Robotis, which developed a room-delivery service robot. It has an arm that can press an elevator button and knock on doors. At the 2023 HITEC conference, one of its robots delivered a bottle of wine directly to a guest’s room in a model hotel. The company aims to break into the North American hotel industry.

Airlines and airports will invest in more efficient self-service tech. They will have to as the number of air travelers is expected to grow exponentially. The International Air Transport Association predicts that the number of air passenger trips will reach 7.8 billion by 2040, double what it was before the pandemic. 

A pain point in hiring right now is finding baggage handlers at airports. It’s contributed to mass flight cancellations in recent years. It’ll get worse as it gets harder to hire handlers and more people travel. 

All Nippon Airways in Japan has been working with Toyota Industries to pilot a robotic bag loader as well as an autonomous tow tractor to transport cargo.

Alaska Airlines plans to invest $2.5 billion over three years to upgrade its passenger technology in airport lobbies. The airline will have a baggage dropoff machine that scans a passenger’s face, identification and bags. 

As tour guides become harder to hire, autonomous vehicles could step in. Double-deck buses could be replaced by self-driving cars with digital guides that offer a variety of tours based on specific interests in a number of languages.

The industry can’t afford service gaps in the years ahead, especially as a larger share of the traveling public exceeds 65. Some of these adults may need more assistance. 

In Japan, which is far ahead of the West in its population decline, Narita International Airport, partnered with WHILL to launch an autonomous wheelchair service last year. 

Nearly one-fifth of U.S. adults aged 65 and older reported they had difficulty with seeing, hearing, communication, mobility, memory or concentration, or self-care, according to the Administration for Community Living’s 2021 demographic profile

The industry currently struggles to support travelers with accessibility needs. Given the predicted labor crunch, this only will get harder in the years ahead without better tech. 

As their labor pool shrinks, all travel companies will eventually face a stark choice: adopt AI tech or scale back their services.

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