The Terminator wants to be your next travel agent.
New artificial intelligence (AI) technologies promise to make travel a little smarter. The latest entrant is Aeromexico’s new AI-based customer-service bot, billed as a “smart brain” capable of machine learning. It launched earlier this year in Spanish on Facebook, and an English version is being rolled out now.
But do they really live up to the billing? It depends. There’s little doubt that AI is improving the bottom line for airlines, hotels and car-rental companies, which are aggressively integrating this technology into their operations. But for consumers, there are only a few AI-enabled apps and sites that offer a meaningful improvement, if any.
AI is becoming more recognized
Nearly 85 percent of travel and hospitality professionals are using AI within their businesses, according to a recent survey by Tata Consultancy Services, which is based in India. Currently, its application is mainly confined to their IT departments. Around 46 percent of companies employ it for tasks like handling bookings and credit-card transactions. However, in just four years, 60 percent of surveyed companies anticipated AI spreading to their marketing. This AI would aim to convince you to purchase their offerings.
Indeed, most of the AI firepower is reserved for the back-end systems designed to squeeze more profit out of an airline seat or hotel room, or to improve the efficiency of airport operations. For example, flight disruptions cost airlines billions each year, so airports are deploying AI systems to quickly deal with irregular operations. A company called SITA is working with airports to create an algorithm to forecast airline delays.
“This is a huge cost for the industry,” says Jim Peters, SITA’s chief technology officer. “There is a strong desire to remove as much uncertainty as possible.”
What stands out about AI
For customer-facing AI systems for travelers, there are several standouts. One of the most prominent examples of AI is Hopper, which uses a variety of artificial intelligence to power its site and booking engine. That includes machine learning to analyze pricing data and suggest the best times to book a trip to a destination, a system that alerts you when ticket prices drop, and a “conversational chatbot” that understands written queries and generates relevant results. Another site, Hipmunk, also has a well-known conversational chatbot capable of understanding queries and offering relevant search results.
“The idea here is to leverage AI strategically at the right moment in the customer journey,” says Étienne Mérineau, the co-founder and head of conversation design at Heyday.ai, a chatbot developer based in Montreal.
At Kayak, when you access its price forecast tool, you’re using an intelligent system that’s more than a simple search. Not only does it offer a more accurate price prediction, says Giorgos Zacharia, the chief technology officer for Kayak, “artificial intelligence also allows us to combine flights from different carriers for more savings for our users.”
And while the sites that offer it are popular, the technology can be a little glitchy. Take the Aeromexico AI, called Aerobot. Like the Terminator’s mythical Skynet, it goes far beyond offering scripted answers, learning as it goes by scanning. Analyzing previous customer service transcripts.
This is only the beginning of AI
The system, currently only available in Spanish, is still primitive. I accessed the AI through its Facebook page and asked it for help with a reservation. The response? “Let me transfer you to a human agent.” Its developers said Aerobot can answer simple questions, such as “What is your pet fee?” and “I have to change a flight,” but is still learning the rest. Who said customer service would be easy?
Certainly not Nina McGouldrick, a medical writer from Richardson, Tex. She recently used Hopper to book a flight on American Airlines, with frustrating results. When she phoned the airline to inquire about her flight’s status, American Airlines asserted that she had canceled her ticket. Their records indicated that someone using her number had placed the call. (Related: The year ahead: Here’s what travelers should expect in 2024.)
“All we could see on our side is that it was canceled by the airline at the flier’s request,” says Brianna Schneider. A Hopper spokeswoman. “It pains us to hear, though, that this traveler didn’t intend to cancel her trip and we will reach out to her to get more details.”
Travelers may actually be enjoying AI
But McGouldrick may be in the minority. Artificial intelligence is increasingly palatable to a majority of travelers. A recent survey by PricewaterhouseCoopers looked at people’s views on technology. The survey showed that 56 percent of respondents are willing to use an artificial travel agent in the next five years. (Read more about Google Flight Search tool.)
To which human agents say: Nonsense.
“Would you trust the Terminator to tell you where to see the best sunset on the Amalfi Coast?” asks Erika Richter, a spokeswoman for the American Society of Travel Agents . “I don’t think so.” (Here is my ultimate guide to finding a travel advisor).
Currently, the idea of AI enhancing travel appears more feasible for a company’s backend operations. Intelligent applications can boost efficiency and reduce expenses there. However, for the systems travelers directly use, progress is slower. It might be a while before you can use a machine to book your next vacation.