Jan 15, 2020

Delta’s CEO wants to use tech to make airports happier places

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Ed Bastian also wants to work on the impact of flying on climate change.

This year at CES, the big electronics and tech show in Las Vegas held every January, the kickoff keynote presentation for the first time was made by an airline CEO.

Delta Air Lines’ Ed Bastian talked about how tech should help take the stress out of flying and, of course, make you want to pay more to fly Delta. The airline announced a few new features, like updates to its app to include other parts of the trip, like ride-share and hotel. He also talked about how artificial intelligence can be used to improve scheduling, investments in updating airports around the country and something called “parallel reality” — using high-tech displays in airports to show personalized flight information to lots of different people at the same time.  

I spoke with Bastian in Las Vegas, and he described parallel reality to me. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.

Ed Bastian: You’d walk up to your gate and you’d see you’re boarding, try to figure out which gate you’re going to and what time is it. It seems like mumbo jumbo, particularly if you don’t speak the language or if you’re coming from another country. It will have your welcome sign that just you personally will see — welcome, Molly, your gate is A26 and is departing in 48 minutes, and there’s a Starbucks halfway down there if you wanted to stop and get a coffee on the way down. Just think how welcoming that is, how personalized. How do you personalize the experience and have people have that connection to the brand, and that emotional experience that we talked about at Delta?

Molly Wood: What are the parts that you can’t control? There are a lot of stakeholders, a lot of touch points in an airport. I wish you could make the Transportation Security Administration easier for people, but what are the parts that you won’t be able to make it do?

Bastian: I will tell you, one of the things that’s been unique to our turnaround is we stopped thinking about the things that we can’t control and start focusing on the things we can control. There’s many more things within our control than not. TSA and the security cube, we are not responsible for it, but we think we’re responsible for it because we’re responsible for our customers and doing more and more, working more with biometrics to facilitate that facial recognition. While it certainly has privacy questions that people sometimes don’t want — which is fine, they don’t have to opt for it if they don’t want to — facial recognition is a more efficient way to get people through a boarding and through the entire airport experience without them having to fumble for their passport or their boarding pass or trying to find their papers.

Wood: This is a bit of a departure — no pun intended — but who are you hiring? I would imagine a generation of data scientists and coders are not necessarily thinking that Delta is the place I’m going to land.

Bastian: We got a lot of data scientists, because they like the challenge. This is big league stuff. This is actually solving dynamic issues that are happening in real time, 24 hours a day. In fact, not even 24 hours. We call our business 46 hours in a day, when you think about the full length around the world that we’re flying. It’s high-class stuff. People love to travel, so that’s one of the perks. While we’re competing with the Amazons and other different talent, we’re actually winning a lot of people coming from high-tech organizations because they like the work, they like the challenge of the work and they like the product.

Wood: I have to be honest, coming into CES, I thought you were going to announce facial recognition in every airport and every Delta boarding, because I know that’s something that you have talked about and experimented with as an airline. Where is that?

Bastian: It’s coming. It’s there for most of our international markets now. I think people are still trying to figure out what’s their point of view on facial [recognition], and communities are trying to figure that out and some governments are as well. For us at Delta, it’s important [that] it’s an opt-in system. We’re not forcing people to go through facial recognition. We think it’s a great technology to help facilitate the flow through the airport, as well as the actual effectiveness of the security trying to weed out the bad guys. But the reality is that I think people are still getting used to the concept. So no, we weren’t planning [on it today]. What we wanted to do was announce things that are coming over the next five years as compared to things that we are already doing.

Wood: Is [facial recognition] a little trickier than we all thought it was going to be?

Bastian: No, I wouldn’t say that. Facial recognition on the international side is largely in place. We still have some more airports to finish rolling out. On TSA, on the domestic side, yes, that’s probably more challenging because [there’s] a higher number of passengers domestically than internationally that travel. Secondly, you don’t have the infrastructure in place through TSA to accommodate — yet again, you think about those clogged hallways sometimes TSA operates, adding another form of access through their facial, it’s just that much more challenging. But as we’re building the infrastructure in the airports, that’s where we’re leaning towards.

Wood: I want to ask you about climate change, because when people fly a lot, it’s good for your business. But there is this realization, I think increasingly, that it’s bad for the planet. How do you take climate into account? How might some of this investment in technology mitigate some of that in the future?

Bastian: I think that is the existential question for us for our future in terms of our ability to grow. If we can’t grow sustainably, our industry is not going to be given the right to grow. I think it’s that serious. We are doing a lot in that regard, and I’m pretty self-critical of Delta, as well as the industry, in this respect. I think we’ve been defensive about it. I think we’ve talked in a passive voice. We talked about things that we’re doing less of, compared to what we’re doing to actually make the planet better. We’re just doing less bad as compared to doing more good, and you got to do both. And you got to, by the way, also engage your customers in that journey. This is not something the airlines by themselves can fix. This is something that the customers and the airlines and the entire ecosystem has to work out, a solution. At Delta, we’ve made good progress, largely through new engine technology. Every new plane that we bring into Delta is 25% more fuel efficient than the plane that’s departing. This year alone, we’ll have 80 new airplanes — we’ve replaced one-third of our fleet within the last five years. We’re doing a lot of work in that regard. Our emission levels are down 11% since 2005, and in 2012, we voluntarily capped our emission levels. Any growth above 2012 levels in emissions has all come carbon neutral, and we’ve grown to 25% since 2012. We’re doing things that probably are not the best, but I think there’s a number of industries that can’t match some of the stats that we’re already started to derive. Our main culprit is jet fuel, clearly. It’s about 2.5% of the CO2 emissions in our world [that] are due to jet fuel. What we set as a goal is to reduce our jet fuel emissions or footprint by 50% by the year 2050.

Wood: How do you see tech changing the way we fly and fly more sustainably in the next 10 years? Are you investing in electric planes?

Bastian: No, I don’t think the technology is going to be there for a while. We’re certainly investing in understanding what the technologies are capable of and working with the engine makers and understanding. But no, there’s no substitute for a jet engine today on an aircraft. What we have to do is we have to invest in lighter-weight planes, we have to invest in higher-performing engines — at 25% reduction in fuel efficiency per plane is a significant amount. We’re using it where we can’t offset completely the growth of fuel. We’re having to invest in programs and resources through offsets and other means to make sure we’re replenishing the resources of the planet in real time that we’re using. It’s not a one answer. There’s a lot of things that come into play here.

Wood: I would be remiss if I didn’t ask why there are so many boarding categories. Do there need to be that many? Sometimes there’s only eight people in the category, and then I feel like I thought I upgraded but I’m still nine groups away. Can we just make that simpler?

Bastian: Yes, we can. The boarding process is very complicated, it’s confusing, it’s unnecessary in terms of some of the complexity. We’re working on ways to do that. It’s segmenting customers to a degree that we don’t need to go down. We announced today something for the app called virtual queuing. You will get a push notification when you’re ready to board, not when you’re plane is boarding, but when Molly is ready to board. You will get that notification, and that’ll be your cue. Hopefully it cuts down on some of the cluster around the gates. But we’re working on that. We’re very committed to that. One of the other things about the infrastructure build in the airports is that the real estate that needs to be by the gate historically was built for pre-9/11 security queue where people didn’t spend time gathering around the gate — they just waited in the head house, in the lobby area of an airport and it only took them five minutes to get over to the gate. They would be in the restaurant, they’d be other places, and getting on the planes was not a big deal. Also the loads, the load factors on the planes were a lot less years ago when those airports were designed than they are today. So as we’re building the new airports, we’re flipping the real estate around. We’re putting a lot more space at the gate because nobody spends any time in the lobby of an airport. Why would you spend time there? There’s nothing to do. You want to get to the gate, that’s where we want you to have your amenities. The first point of contact really should be the security, getting through security into the airport and then you turning that entire real estate that can be used by people that have an opportunity to get into a more comfortable setting.

Wood: I’m glad it’s on the list.

Bastian: It’s on the list.

Ed Bastian delivers remarks during an opening ceremony of Delta’s new terminal at LaGuardia Airport on Oct. 29 in New York City. (Stephanie Keith/Getty Images)

Related links: More insight from Molly Wood

During our interview, I suggested that the biggest competition to airlines might be rage — to Bastian’s point about the stress and frustration of travel. But it turns out a new disruption has emerged: flight shaming. The BBC reported last week that Sweden, home of teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg, has seen a 4% drop in airline travel, and one of the reasons that the country’s airport operators gave was climate change — specifically, increased awareness of the emissions caused by flying and public shaming over flying too much. 

You heard Bastian and me talk about this parallel reality thing they’re launching in the Detroit airport. I tried it out at CES, and it really is amazing. I can be standing right next to someone, and I’ll see my flight information — I asked for it in French just to try out the language stuff — and the person standing right next to me sees completely different information in a different language. It is impressive and cool. The display was developed by a company called Misapplied Sciences, a startup that was funded by Delta.

CEO Albert Ng wouldn’t tell me how much these screens cost, but he said the goal is to make it about the same cost as those big LED walls you see everywhere currently. If I had to guess, I’d say that right now it’s a lot more expensive than that.

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The team

Molly Wood Host
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