Flights staffed by AI: The one driver for customer acceptance
Artificial intelligence and machines are taking over from human knowledge and labor as the platform on which businesses will run in the future. Having said that, it is important to understand that many skilled jobs currently performed by humans will be restructured and made more impactful by technology than be totally replaced by it. The aviation industry's unique positioning makes some parts a little more complex to automate than most other sectors. Already based on a platform of advanced technology, the industry also leans heavily on customer service quality and offerings as a means to distinguish between brands. What would automation typically look like?
Take for example, a carpenter who builds wooden furniture. Essentially, his/her job involves planning out the structure of the furniture he/she seeks to build, selecting the right pieces of wood, cutting them in different shapes and sizes he/she needs, planing, carving and polishing as required and finally nailing together the right pieces in the right places. A machine can carry out most of those steps, probably even better than the human carpenter. Today we call this mass production of furniture; perhaps tomorrow it will happen with zero human intervention, based on orders coming in from retail platforms. Rather than eliminating a carpenter's job, it frees up the carpenter from doing those repetitive tasks, and lets him/her focus on the creative aspects that make the job unpredictable and challenging. The table, chair or cabinet a carpenter builds is a solution to the customer's problem. Instead of solving a problem once and spending time on repeatedly implementing it every day, the carpenter now gets to solve new and bigger problems with the assurance that the implementation (by the machine) is going to be faster and more efficient, and at a better cost structure than before. The industry will continue to exist and even flourish, but will demand a different type of workforce. New workers who wish to join the trade will have to build up their creativity and design skills, rather than learning the nuances of woodwork and how to use those by-now obsolete tools.
If that, as an analogy were to be applied to travel, what would the resultant model look like? Intense automation on the core aspects of the industry could mean roles like the pilot's, reservation management, passenger services, luggage handling and airline operations can theoretically be taken over by machines. Flights can even be piloted remotely in most cases. One key point of contention would be the role of the cabin crew. The cabin crew are trained to handle hospitality, food service, passenger safety and even several aspects of emergency rescue among other skills. How far can those be automated?
An interesting analysis from Harvard Business Review breaks down jobs into their component tasks to estimate how susceptible they are to automation, based on the metric of Return On Improved Performance (ROIP). A pilot's job, it says, has a low ROIP because a pilot absolutely has to be good to a certain point, but being fantastic doesn't really make a difference to the airline's profits on an average. On the other hand, exemplary service from cabin crew members will result in better goodwill from customers and hence increased revenues – thus making it a job with high ROIP. But is it impossible to run a commercial flight without cabin crew?
One may start with recorded video messages on flight safety (to replace the demonstration of the same by the cabin crew) and also set up vending machines in flights to dispense everything from water to snacks, not just at regular serving schedules but also on demand and with a suitable payment mechanism embedded into it. As long as the flight is uneventful, this system may just suffice.
However, customer satisfaction is proportional to the cabin crew service quality in most airlines. At least some passengers may still demand a trained human presence to make them feel safe in the skies. The National Careers Service of the UK government lists 'ability to be calm under pressure' as one of the top skills required of cabin crew members for any airline. In other words, they need to take control of situations even when passengers are not able to stay calm. In extreme cases, there have been instances of cabin crew members sacrificing their lives to save passengers during unfortunate events. These are clear indicators of how important the cabin crew members are in a flight. This in fact, brings us to the core of the topic: Customer acceptance of such a flight staffed by AI.
Purely from a business perspective, the one most important differentiating point between a passenger who demands human intervention and one who will settle for a fully automated experience will be how much they are willing to pay for it. The low budget, deal-hunting traveler might be happy to settle for an unstaffed flight if it will reduce his/her ticket price by around 25% or so. On the other hand, a passenger who absolutely must get human service may have to demonstrate how important it is to him/her through willingness to pay extra for it. In other words, the price is the one driver that will govern how AI will transform airlines, and even separate the two segments of customers – one that will embrace AI as a means to save money, and another that will see it as a deprivation of their feeling of safety!
To an airline company, that isn't necessarily bad news. Nor is it going to be perpetually impossible. More on that in upcoming blog posts.