US airline Delta to introduce savvy new tech including a 'binge button' for inflight entertainment

Delta Air Lines is creating its own version of a "digital concierge" to tie customers more tightly to the carrier for travel needs ranging from navigating traffic to booking a hotel.

An improved mobile app will allow travellers to arrange rides to the airport, stay on top of weather and traffic changes, get customised directions through unfamiliar airports and receive notifications when their seat is ready to board, Chief Executive Officer Ed Bastian said at the CES technology trade show in Las Vegas on Tuesday.

He outlined the airline's plan for expanding its technology platform over the next few years to improve operations and make life easier for customers. In the process, the carrier will go head-to-head with more entrenched travel websites and have to grapple with growing privacy concerns about how companies use the data they gather on people's lives.

The airline will spend "hundreds of millions" in the next few years on its technology program, Chief Operating Officer Gil West said in an interview before Bastian spoke, though he declined to get more specific. "Ultimately, all that innovation is being driven to create a better customer experience."

Delta will have plenty of competition centralising its customers' travel plans into its own app. Online travel agent giants Expedia and Booking.com already do this - and they handle a lot more overall bookings than Delta does. Google, which has steadily worked its way into the industry over the past decade, also automatically gathers different bookings from a customer's email account and organises them.

The carrier will also face growing concerns about privacy and how information might be misused by companies that collect and store data tracking the movements of mobile phone users. A recent series of articles in the New York Times highlighted how one data file from such a company contained more than 50 billion location signals from the phones of more than 12 million people in several major US cities.

Delta, like some other large US carriers, has already begun using biometric security screening and other technology to move travellers through airports faster. Delta passengers flying direct to an international destination can choose facial recognition technology to board flights from seven US cities.

The airline's first step toward the digital concierge will extend its existing partnership with online ride sharing company Lyft. The Fly Delta app will link customers' Delta SkyMiles and Lyft accounts, making it easier to earn miles during trips, Bastian said. Other options being studied include a dedicated premium Delta-Lyft service at the busiest US airports, and the option of paying for rides with SkyMiles.

The airline will use artificial intelligence starting this spring to help lessen the impact on its operations of disruptions due to events like bad weather. In mid-2020, Delta plans to beta test digital signs in Detroit's airport that convey travel-related messages and are visible only to targeted travellers.

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The so-called parallel reality signage, developed in partnership with startup company Misapplied Sciences, will offer information like directions to a gate or loyalty program lounge, flight updates and upgrade or standby status. Passengers can opt into the program by scanning a boarding pass.

On its planes, Delta is studying ways to give passengers more control over inflight entertainment, such as providing a "binge button" for specific television series and "recommended for you" offerings.

In addition to consumer-facing products, in the next three months the airline is testing a battery-powered robotic exoskeleton designed to enable workers to lift up to 90 kilograms repeatedly for up to eight hours without strain or fatigue, Delta said. The full-body exoskeleton, made by Sarcos Corp's Sarcos Robotics, could be used to handle freight, engines and other heavy machinery at Delta.

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See also: This is the future of inflight entertainment (and you may not like it)

See also: Travellers warned not to use USB charger outlets at airports

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