During a keynote address this morning at the 2020 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Nevada, Delta — one of the largest airlines in the world, with more than 200 million passengers annually and 5,000 daily departures to more than 500 destinations — took the wraps off of new experiences heading to its Fly Delta app and in-cabin entertainment consoles in the coming year. It also peeled back the curtains on its use of AI and machine learning to improve efficiency, and on an expanded partnership with Lyft that’ll reward fliers who use the ride-hailing company’s services regularly.

Simulation platform

According to Erik Snell, senior vice president of Dell’s operations and customer center, the airline is developing a simulation environment to orchestrate its commercial flights globally. It’s intended to improve reliability, particularly during inclement weather and challenging travel events.

“Our customers expect us to get them to their destinations safely and on time, in good weather and bad,” Snell said. “That’s why we’re adding a machine learning platform to our array of behind-the-scenes tools so that the more than 80,000 [employees] of Delta can even more quickly and effectively solve problems even in the most challenging situations.”

Delta’s platform will analyze millions of data points to create hypothetical outcomes that help workers make decisions before and during disruptions, from aircraft positions and flight crew restrictions to real-time airport conditions. Post-mortem, it can be used to identify how better decisions could have been made in any given situation, and it’ll improve over time as more data is collected and integrated.

It’s akin to the predictive maintenance techniques employed by Gogo, which piloted its first in-flight broadband system 10 years ago and now services over 17 of the world’s largest airlines. Log files from servers stored in the aircraft record machine fan speeds — an indication of the servers’ temperatures — to inform day-to-day maintenance and build decision trees for operators on the ground.

This and so-called “digital twins” modeling approaches have gained currency in other domains, chiefly industry and energy. For instance, London-based SenSat helps clients in construction, mining, energy, and other industries create models of locations relevant to projects they’re working on, translating the real world into a version that machines can understand. For its part, GE offers technology that allows companies to model digital twins of actual machines, whose performance is closely tracked. And Oracle offers services that rely on virtual representations of objects, equipment, and work environments.

“We already work closely with other Delta teams to provide proactive notifications to customers when their plans may be disrupted,” Snell added. “As the Fly Delta app transforms into a day-of-travel digital concierge, we expect our quicker game-time decisions to play an even greater role in providing a more stress-free travel experience for our customers.”

The initial implementation will launch this spring, Delta says.

New Fly Delta app

On the mobile side of its aviation business, Delta plans to roll out a refreshed Fly Delta app that will offer services like a ride to the airport and notifications regarding flight itineraries.

As CEO Ed Bastian previewed during the keynote, an improved virtual queuing feature will notify people when their seat is about to board. Proactive alerts powered by the forthcoming simulation platform will be in tow, too, alongside tighter Lyft integration. In the future, it’ll become easier to link Delta SkyMiles and Lyft accounts for ride-share mile earning, to view estimated ride arrival times, and to pay for rides using miles.

“Instead of checking one app for traffic, another for airport parking, and a third for TSA wait times, Delta is building the capability to simplify travel by helping you manage everything from ridesharing and in-flight entertainment to bag delivery and hotels,” Bastian said. “We’re excited to start exploring these possibilities with an innovative leader like Lyft, with whom we share a passion for making the customer travel experience even more rewarding.”

Delta says that since 2017, its SkyMiles rewards program members have earned more than 1.5 billion miles nationwide through Lyft. To commemorate the partnership’s launch, Dleta and Lyft are offering double miles for all Las Vegas airport rides, as well as double miles for all rides to and from the Consumer Electronics Show.

Parallel Reality tech

Delta also announced a partnership with Misapplied Sciences, a Seattle-area startup that makes screens that can show different content to multiple people at the same time. In mid-2020 at the Detroit Metropolitan Airport, the two will launch an opt-in beta experience that allows customers to see personalized info in their preferred language tailored to their travel plans.

Misapplied Sciences’ single-display technology — Parallel Reality — will provide wayfinding information, boarding time, standby and upgrade status, and directions to departure gate or the closest airport club. Gil West, Delta chief operating officer, says that nearly 100 customers will be able to view the screen, which will be located just after security.

“This breakthrough technology has to be seen to be believed — it has the potential to make even the busiest airports much easier to navigate, even if you don’t speak the language,” said West, who noted that Dell made an equity investment in Misapplied Sciences in 2019. “Not only will Parallel Reality reduce stress and save time for our customers, but when combined with the warmth and thoughtfulness of Delta people, the possibilities are endless.”

After moving through security at Detroit, travelers will see a Parallel Reality display near the Delta Sky Club in Concourse A, within the McNamara Terminal. Delta customers departing from Detroit who want to participate will be able to scan their boarding pass and select the language they want to use, with the assurance that their information won’t be stored.

Exoskeletons and in-flight entertainment

Delta plans to beef up its in-flight entertainment offerings while piloting exoskeletons for employees.

This year, the airline will test a “recommended for you” feature that serves up curated content recommendations on its in-cabin screens. It’ll complement a “binge button” that lets flyers watch seasons of shows uninterrupted, as well as “do not disturb” and “wake me for meal service” flags for select long-haul flights.

With respect to the exoskeleton program, Delta is teaming up with Salt Lake City, Utah-based Sarcos Robotic to test a suit in a pilot location during the first quarter of 2020. (Delta first started working with Sarcos in 2018 as part of its “X-TAG” exoskeleton technical advisory group, representing the aviation sector.) The suit in question — the Sarcos Guardian XO — is battery powered and full-body, and designed to boost performance while preventing physical injury.

Gareth Joyce, Delta senior vice president of cargo airport customer service and cargo, says it could allow an employee to lift up to 200 pounds repeatedly for up to eight hours at a time. Potential uses could include handling freight at warehouses, moving maintenance components, or lifting heavy machinery and parts for ground support equipment.

“We [hope to] explore how emerging technology can make their jobs safer and easier,” said Joyce. “That’s why we sought out a partnership with Sarcos.”