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AI in aviation Q&A: Kevin Hightower (VP of Product Management) and Niha Shaikh (VP of Product)

September 27, 2023

In this Q&A, Kevin Hightower, and Niha Shaikh, take a look at what AI is, and how it might help or hinder the aviation industry.

Kevin Hightower, VP product
Kevin Hightower, VP of product management

Generative AI tools such as ChatGPT have taken the world by storm this year, in particular. It’s been hailed by many as the biggest disruptive technology in this generation and has governments and relevant industry bodies working double time (and reactively) to implement effective checks and balances to properly regulate the technology.

Niha Shaikh, VP of Product

In this Q&A, Cirium’s VP of Product Management, Kevin Hightower, and VP of Product, Niha Shaikh, take a look at what AI is, how it might help or hinder the aviation industry, and what the future of the industry might look like with it front and centre.

What is AI in simple terms?

AI is basically a series of functions performed by a computer system that typically requires human intelligence to complete. It’s essentially technology that mimics human thinking and problem solving.

AI has been spotlighted recently with the rise of generative tools such as ChatGPT, but is it a ‘new’ phenomenon?

No, AI as a technology is not new. Generative AI tools have become more mainstream and widely used, because of the evolution of the interfaces of tools such as ChatGPT and Google Bard, and until now we didn’t have any interfaces that were commoditised or especially user friendly.

There are quite possibly many companies/industries that haven’t known they are using AI technology up to this point, such as virtual customer service tools or predictive text, and the explosion of generative AI has really put this technology as a whole on the centre stage.

In its current form, how useful is AI to the aviation industry?

Generative AI is really good at two things: getting started and answering questions about a problem the user is facing, and polishing something that one has already created but might want to add an extra layer of depth to.

So, for the aviation industry, it is great at helping the user kick off a project or answering questions about industry trends, and background research on an airline or airport, as examples. However, at the moment, models leveraging this tech doesn’t have the full datasets or critical analysis capabilities needed to make more informed and analytical judgements about the industry and/or its players.

Aviation, like many other industries, is very reliant on data but generative AI tools, in their current form, aren’t especially adept at handling numbers and an advanced amount of data.

Even then, like with so many other industries, this technology shows promise in reducing the time aviation professionals spend on those more analogue, day-to-day tasks.

Effectively leveraging this for the right type of tasks could greatly reduce the cognitive load on humans in the loop. It isn’t replacing humans, and is useful in supplementing their own capabilities to improve decision making.

Does AI represent a threat to the industry in any way?

No, it should complement and improve the industry if anything. If you can automate some of the routine tasks you’re performing, then it frees up time to spend on those non-routine tasks that typically require more critical thinking and human insight.

For aviation, it will help reduce the number of tedious tasks that people have to perform and, if applied properly, it should lead to better results, better passenger experiences, safer and cleaner travel and, perhaps, more improved employee retention and recruitment.

How useful is AI to airlines and airports, in particular?

It has the potential to completely transform operations for airlines and airports. There are lots of blind spots or siloes within airline and airport operations, so effective use of this technology could really help to break these down and transform how the industry operates.

We are already seeing airlines leverage different branches of AI technology when it comes to the retail and commercial side of their operations, with tools such as AI-powered chat bots that help improve the customer experience. So, it’s only a matter of time before more of these AI-powered tools are in use across wider airline operations.

Adopting AI is like adopting any new technology though. There are good ways of doing it and bad ways of doing it. Providing the technology is implemented in the right way that suits the needs of the business, with the right due diligence and checks, it should act as a genuine business driver for airlines and airports.

What future role could AI have in the aviation and travel sectors?

The possibilities are endless, especially considering the rise of the Unmanned Aircraft System Traffic Management (UTM) market where more objects will be seen sharing the airspace that has previously only been occupied by manned vehicles. The market is only set to increase for UAVs, but the current systems are not equipped to deal with this, so there is a big opportunity here for technology like this to help upskill those systems to cope with future increases in air traffic.

Aviation is an industry that’s no stranger to innovation and evolution and, in fact, has been a leader when it comes to the adoption of particular innovations such as GPS, radio communication, and radar technology.

Leveraging AI could be another innovation that could change the industry for the better, making operations more efficient and optimising processes to drive better performance across the sector.

If you’re interested in hearing more about AI and how it can be integrated to improve aviation operations, join Niha Shaikh at the World Aviation Festival panel discussion on September 27th (12.45-1.30pm)

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