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Airlines are looking for tech solutions to ease our travel angst

British Airways working with startups to develop new approaches that ease some of the most annoying burdens of air travel

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By Jon Swartz

Bloomberg News/Landov
Alex Cruz is chief executive of British Airways, which just turned 100, and Cruz said “the heart of our systems tend to be older.”

It is the digital age, yet the airline industry still seems to be stuck in the prop-plane era when it comes to tech adoption. Functional Wi-Fi remains a rumor on most airlines, and despite a surfeit of data, information about the status of many flights can be a mystery.

There are exceptions, including Delta Air Lines Inc. /zigman2/quotes/200327741/composite DAL +0.37% and Virgin America, both of which have undertaken technology initiatives to make it easier for passengers to board aircraft via facial recognition and to assign seating through artificial intelligence. Perhaps one of the most ambitious is British Airways, which is actively seeking technology partners to improve operational efficiency.

The airline is in the process of choosing one of five innovations — one candidate specializes in blockchain, another in online hotel booking — in an effort to partner with, and invest in, tech startups. The winner would join more than 20 startups that are part of an incubation program called Hangar 51 Ventures. Members include Assaia , whose artificial-intelligence system monitors turnarounds in real time at London’s Heathrow Airport to better manage operations, and SkyLights , which offers VR films for first-class passengers.

“We are a really old company that turns 100 in August, and the heart of our systems tend to be older,” British Airways Chief Executive Alex Cruz told MarketWatch in a one-on-one interview Tuesday in downtown San Francisco. “So we are constantly looking for ways to enhance our customer experience, especially before they board and after they deplane.”

See also: This is exactly how many days ahead you should buy a plane ticket

To date, British Airways is testing biometrics to speed up boarding in as little as seven minutes in London, Los Angeles, Miami, New York, and Orlando, Fla. Eventual “virtual queuing” will eliminate face-to-face check in, allowing consumers to go straight onto flights, Cruz said. The airline also claims to be the first to use high-tech remote-controlled Mototok tug devices to push back aircraft.

“There are so many pinch points we'd like to eliminate to make things smoother,” Cruz said. “We’re getting there.”

Delta Air Lines, at 95, is a spring chicken in comparison to British Airways. But it considers itself a technology company, Chief Information Officer Rahul Samant said in an interview at the Consumer Electronics Show in January.

For more: Delta Air Lines looks to facial recognition technology to improve travel

The airline, which handles 15,000 flights daily, is using a steady diet of biometrics for boarding and RFID — radio-frequency identification using electromagnetic fields to identify and track tags attached to objects — to track baggage for the estimated 180 million people it flies annually.

Advances in aviation technology are allowing Delta to fly more people “faster, farther and safer” without disrupting schedules, Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian said at the Code 2019 conference on Tuesday. Improvements in data crunching resulted in just 60 canceled flights because of maintenance problems in 2018, compared with 6,000 a decade ago, he said.

As RFID and facial recognition improve, Bastian said, the days of passengers stampeding onboard flights will be a thing of the past. There will be no loading zones or queues, he said.

Now that’s the kind of aviation innovation that any traveler can get behind.

$ 27.18
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Jon Swartz is a senior reporter for MarketWatch in San Francisco, covering many of the biggest players in tech, including Netflix, Facebook and Google. Jon has covered technology for more than 20 years, and previously worked for Barron's and USA Today. Follow him on Twitter @jswartz.

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