Ed Bastian, chief executive officer of Delta Air Lines Inc., speaks during a keynote at CES 2020 in … [+]
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Machine learning, biometrics, and robotics are just a few of the tech tools Delta’s silver-haired CEO Ed Bastian promises will bring the “magic” back to flying.
Speaking at the Consumer Electronic Show (CES) in Las Vegas on Tuesday, Bastian was the first airline executive ever to keynote the event. He had a captive audience.
“Today, you’re going to see what travel will look like in 2025,” he said, just before unveiling Delta’s futuristic vision as a kind of technicolor dream where you imagine yourself standing before the glow of a fluorescent mirror on a wall that asks: “Would you like your bag delivered to your hotel?”
Your car service is on time, you calmly breeze through security without stopping, the free wifi on-board actually works, and — here’s the big one — you never again having to wait at baggage claim.
It’s a nice dream, but can we really buy into this? British Airways and Virgin America have also grandly promised to redefine the travel experience using technology such as artificial intelligence and virtual reality. It has yet to pay off. On the other hand, Delta has deep pockets, and over the past five years has sunk billions of dollars into new tech to accelerate its vision. Bastian claims it’s “closer than we think.” Here are the near-term highlights:
THE LYFT PARTNERSHIP
Delta’s newly-announced partnership with the popular ride-sharing service is one of the biggest developments customers can experience now. John Zimmer, Co-Founder of Lyft, joined Bastian on stage to explain:
“We have made it easy to link SkyMiles and Lyft accounts,” said Zimmer, looking well-rehearsed. (He’s been waiting to announce this for a while.) Customers can now earn one Delta SkyMile for every dollar spent on U.S.-based Lyft rides, and these earned miles can in-turn be used to upgrade your Lyft vehicle. So far, the partnership has awarded customers more than 1.5 billion miles.
Lyft also aims to make trips to the airport more efficient. “When you request a ride, we want to automatically take into consideration things like flight delays, bad weather and traffic based on real-time data from Lyft and Delta,” added Zimmer.
Can’t you just hear it? Dear John Doe, we’d like to schedule your pick-up time 45 minutes early, because a record-breaking blizzard will hit during rush hour and you unfortunately live in the New York tri-state area.
THE FLY DELTA APP
Delta wants its app to become your “digital travel concierge,” a platform for the brands and services you use throughout your journey. It’s a lofty goal, that will come as fast as the ink can dry on Delta’s future brand partnerships.
For now, via GPS-enabled bag tags, you can track your bags in real-time on Delta’s app. You’ll receive a push notification that your bag is on-board with you. Eventually, Bastian says “you should be able to track everything from pets to a child traveling alone” via this app.
He asks us to imagine this scenario: “What if instead of taking your bags with you to the airport, they are picked up at your home and transported directly to your hotel. That means no waiting in the bag drop line, and no worries about overhead bin space. You can go directly from the airport straight to your [destination].”
Wait, does this mean we can skip the 80s-era conveyor belt nightmare that is baggage claim?
Yes! But here’s the catch: These are premium services that will come at a premium cost, payable within the Delta app. Sure, you’ll be able to use Delta SkyMiles as the currency for everything from VIP baggage handling to shopping at an airport store—but make no mistake: this is a smart sales gimmick. They’re keeping the consumer within their brand universe by incentivizing said consumer to do so.
Delta also wants to be a leader in in-flight entertainment, so soon, you’ll be able to play movies on your personal device on your way to the airport via the app (in your Lyft car, of course). And, though I’m not sure anyone needs this — there will be a new “binge button” displayed on the airplane’s seatback screens. How does Delta know we binge reruns of Brooklyn Nine-Nine?
More challenging features, such as seamless security screenings with biometrics accounting for every step of the travel journey, are farther out. But plans are in the works. For example, Delta is investing in Clear, a technology company that uses fingerprints and eye scans to verify a traveler’s identity at security checks. Already installed in more than 60 airports, Clear scanners eliminate the need for a TSA agent to inspect your ID and scribble on your boarding pass.
This isn’t a Delta ploy to circumvent the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). In fact, Delta is partnering with TSA to make wait times shorter and more predictable. They’re also experimenting with computed tomography scanners (CT scans) as a possible improvement to the take-off-your-shoes and receive an awkward pat-down status quo.
As for free in-flight wifi, we’ll have to wait for that, too. Bastian says his team is working to make its paid Wi-Fi service faster, but didn’t provide a timeline on free wifi. “If we made it for free, the system would crash,” Bastian said in a recent interview with Bloomberg television. So, we can fly to the moon and back, but we can’t let everyone check their email at the same time on a plane? (Note: JetBlue offers free wifi, but is the only U.S. carrier to do so.)
On the whole, it wasn’t just a good speech full of ambitious promises—which you can watch here. It was a siren call to the entire aviation industry, whose leaders now face a choice: Invest in new tech, or get left in the dust. Delta’s dust, specifically, which Bastian makes look like glitter.