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How artificial intelligence is transforming aviation

In the bustling halls of Dubai's convention center, where the hum of jet engines is replaced by the buzz of industry chatter, airline executives from around the globe are gathering for the 80th meeting of the International Air Transport Association (IATA). This year, amid discussions on fuel costs and route expansions, there's a new topic dominating conversations: artificial intelligence.



While the notion of AI-piloted planes remains firmly in the realm of science fiction, the technology is already revolutionizing nearly every other facet of the aviation industry. "Data and AI are fantastic levers for the aviation sector," declares Julie Pozzi, head of data science and AI at Air France-KLM, setting the tone for what promises to be a transformative era.

In an industry known for its razor-thin profit margins, where every efficiency gain can mean the difference between profitability and bankruptcy, AI is emerging as a game-changer. Geoffrey Weston, head consultant on the airline industry at Bain & Company, sees it as "undoubtedly a new frontier," offering an "extraordinary acceleration of technology and capabilities."

The power of AI in aviation lies not just in its computational prowess, but in its ability to navigate complexity. "When you have a lot of uncertainty," Weston explains, "what AI is really helpful for is to hugely accelerate getting the right information to the right people as quickly as possible." In an industry where weather delays, mechanical issues, or security threats can disrupt tightly choreographed schedules, this capability is invaluable.

Air France-KLM is at the forefront of this AI revolution. The Franco-Dutch carrier is currently juggling "more than 40 projects using generative artificial intelligence," the same technology that powers ChatGPT. One standout project is a multilingual tool set to debut in 2025 at Paris Charles de Gaulle airport. Installed on Air France agents' tablets, it will communicate with customers in 85 different languages, breaking down barriers in one of the world's busiest international hubs.

But the AI transformation extends beyond airline operations. Groupe ADP, which operates Paris's airports, is collaborating with startups to enhance various aspects of the airport experience. Allobrain, for instance, uses voice recognition to handle phone inquiries, slashing unanswered call rates from 50% to a mere 10%. Meanwhile, Wintics is helping to optimize drop-off areas and shuttle rotations by extracting real-time data from surveillance footage.

These innovations come at a critical time. As air travel rebounds to pre-pandemic levels and beyond, airports face mounting pressure. "We have more and more passengers in increasingly constrained spaces, and we are still traveling as we did in the 1970s," observes Jerome Bouchard, a consultant at Oliver Wyman's Transportation and Services practice. He sees vast potential in technologies like facial recognition at security checkpoints, though he cautions that "enormous coordination and data synchronization" are still needed.

Modern aircraft themselves are treasure troves of data, with sophisticated self-diagnostic systems continuously monitoring every aspect of their performance. When combined with AI, this data can predict maintenance needs, optimize fuel consumption, and even suggest route adjustments in real-time.

Yet, for all its promise, there's one domain where AI won't be taking over anytime soon: the cockpit. When it comes to actually piloting the aircraft, industry leaders are unanimous—human judgment remains irreplaceable. As Patrice Caine, CEO of aerospace giant Thales, stated in March, "It is up to humans to take responsibility for decision-making."

Instead, Caine advocates for what he terms "assisted intelligence"—AI that supports and enhances human capabilities rather than replacing them. This philosophy aligns with the broader trend in aviation, where AI is seen as a tool to augment human expertise, not supplant it.

As the IATA conference unfolds in Dubai, it's clear that AI's impact on aviation is just beginning. From streamlining airport operations to enhancing in-flight experiences, the technology is touching every part of the air travel journey. Yet, amidst the excitement over algorithms and machine learning, there's a reassuring consensus: in this industry where safety is paramount, the ultimate decisions will always rest in human hands.

The future of aviation is indeed AI-powered, but it will be guided by the wisdom, experience, and responsibility of those who have long been its stewards—the men and women who take to the skies, ensuring our safe passage through the clouds.

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