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Predicting what's next in the tailor-made revolution

Posted 20 September 2018 · Add Comment

The fusion of big data, artificial intelligence (AI) and in-flight connectivity is changing the way airlines do business. Steve Nichols looks at how cutting-edge technology is changing what you eat, read, and watch on flights, without you even realising.

The hot topic in the airline passenger experience arena a couple of years ago was personalisation – tailoring various aspect of your flight to suit you as an individual.
But technology has moved on and airlines can now monitor not only your wants and needs, but also everyone else’s to tailor what it offers. And a lot of this can be done in real time.
The change is being brought about by the advent of big data and AI systems that can monitor what people are watching on the IFE, buying from duty free, and even eating, to predict what the airline should stock up on next.
But AI is even more powerful than that. By coupling it to social media it can predict what you might want to drink before you even know it.
Sounds like science fiction? There are plenty of companies who think otherwise.
At the Passenger Experience Conference in Hamburg in April there were a number of sessions that looked at how big data and AI could revolutionise the industry.
Steve King, chief executive officer, Black Swan Data, said it is all about offering passengers choice, control and quality.
“We’re using the same tricks, but in a different shop,” King said. “They’re just techniques that already exist, but in-flight connectivity now allows us to move data on and off the aircraft.
“This allows us to use data in a more modern way, just as we do on the ground.”
Black Swan Data has been working with Gategroup to better understand the demand for its in-flight catering products.
Simon de Montfort Walker, chief technology officer, Gategroup, said: “The Black Swan partnership allows us to better predict passenger preferences and, thus, consumption.”
Gategroup’s global retail network serves 700+ million passengers a year and has to plan 120 days ahead, so forecasting demand accurately is essential.
The Gategroup/Black Swan alliance is set to deliver a platform that will allow travellers to use their personal electronic devices to browse and purchase movies, music, food, travel, duty-free and WiFi packages.
Airlines will be able to cater to passengers’ product preferences on current, connecting, and future flights.
But it isn’t just a case of monitoring what people have bought previously. Black Swan says it can use big data within social media to see what is trending to make predictions about demand.
“There are 2.8 billion social media users generating 211 million pieces of content every minute,” said King.
“But we can take people’s opinions and create useful metrics. Everything has a trend value and we can pick up on that. This gives us a hint as to what people will want in terms of food and drink in the future.”
De Montfort Walker added: “A typical long-haul flight carries more than a tonne of food, which has an impact on the fuel burn. By adjusting what we load, we can typically save about £2,000 a flight in fuel.
“We believe AI will allow us to reduce wastage by half.”
And it isn’t just the airline catering industry that is making the most of big data.
Panasonic Avionics is combining its ‘Gen 3’ in-flight connectivity network, driven by faster modems and spot beam Ku-band satellites that give greater available bandwidth, with new software solutions.
The company is investing heavily in new people, AI and other software to mine the “data lake” being created by thousands of passengers worldwide.
It is setting up a new office in Silicon Valley and has selected Amazon Web Services (AWS) to help deliver data analytics and insights.
The data lake, combined with Panasonic’s cloud capabilities, means video content can be better targeted and passengers may soon receive offers and advertising that is being decided in real-time by the automated analysis of data being beamed to the ground.
In-flight connectivity, coupled with powerful AI software, suddenly opens up a marketplace that just never existed.
“As a business, we are interested in outcomes – and this is what is driving what we are doing,” said Ian Dawkins, Panasonic Avionics’ vice president, global network operations.
“This is not about selling bandwidth as we did in the past. This is about selling services to airlines. Our whole strategy is about providing a consistency of service and a huge step change with AI tools.
“We aim to lead the industry with what we are doing with these services. We want to guide the airline in new fundamental ways so that they can add value,” Dawkins said.
At AIX Hamburg, Panasonic Avionics and Gategroup announced a strategic alliance to increase revenue generation for airlines.
Panasonic’s new NEXT Marketplace retail platform is the company’s response to this growing demand for ancillary revenues.
It says NEXT Marketplace can now start to fine tune what is put on board an aircraft for maximum revenue generation and passenger satisfaction.
It uses a data-centric cloud platform that enables stock and marketing campaigns on board the aircraft to be better managed.
For example, campaigns can be generated on the fly to sell excess duty free merchandise, food or drink on the aircraft. Airlines can create “rules” such as, if there are only one or two particular duty-free items left, start giving a 20% discount to premier customers.
“These deals can then be pushed to the airline’s frequent flyers as they sit in their seats. The system can see how the passengers react in real time,” said Samir Lad, head of digital architecture, Panasonic Avionics.
“The clever part is that you can be doing this globally.
“The system learns what works and what doesn’t. You can even predict who will ‘abandon the shopping cart’ or fail to complete the purchase. This is already happening on the ground with web sales without people even realising.
“You can then incentivise the passenger with coupons or further offers to make the sale. And, over time, the system learns and knows what to do to maximise sales,” Lad said.
The system also knows if there are major sporting events happening.
“If that is the case, the airline might want to stock up on more alcohol and less Coca Cola,” said Lad. “We are providing the platform and the insight, but it is up to the airlines as to how they wish to implement it.”
Panasonic says this offers a “plan, do, review” marketing cycle. But where that might have taken months before, it can now be implemented and tested in real time.
And campaigns can be adjusted for different routes around the world – it doesn’t have to be a one-size fits all campaign.
A similar methodology can be used for in-flight entertainment content. That is, movies that are proving popular on some flights can be added to others, whereas content that is not being watched can be removed.
This can be done automatically on the ground via Panasonic’s Zero Touch service. This uses a global network of data transfer stations that can connect to Zero Touch-equipped aircraft via WiFi at the gate.
With the cost of 4G and satellite-based transfers coming down and speeds going up, increasingly we may see content updates while the aircraft is still in flight.
But can you give passengers too much choice? Nathaniel Giraitis, director of strategy, Smart Design, thinks you can.
“Personalisation is a critical trend we are seeing across a number of industries,” Giraitis said.
“It is an opportunity to let companies have deeper relationships with their customers. But where once it was a great idea to get more choices out to the customer, we now think this is detrimental.
“For example, there are more than 14,000 titles on Netflix and, while that sounds exciting, infinite choice is paralysing to the human psyche. If your customer does not see what they want in a few seconds they will lose interest,” he concluded.

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