Large airlines are incredibly complex businesses with thousands of documents, processes, and operations to keep track of. That’s why the best airlines leverage automation to improve travel experiences for customers, process customer refunds, reduce employee time spent on tedious work, and drive profitable growth.
Continued advances in AI are prompting airlines and travel companies to push the envelope and explore what’s possible with new technologies. Increasingly, they’re seeing how automation enables them to capture real value from AI, and boost employee productivity and overall customer service as a result.
During FORWARD VI, I had the privilege of hosting a panel with Sarah Barr Miller, Director of Data and Automation at British Airways and Kunaal Masih, Head of Digital at Cathay Pacific to talk about how their airlines are putting AI to work.
Every day, meticulous coordination by airlines enables the miracle of modern air travel. Few of us think about the countless details involved in keeping everything running, such as organizing staff schedules, ensuring people arrive on time, and managing everyone’s luggage.
Barr Miller noted that airlines are “a load of different businesses all joined together…we even run restaurants in the sky.” Moreover, minor mistakes can result in substantial fines from regulators, intensifying the need to operate flawlessly.
According to Masih, Cathay Pacific’s top three priorities are:
Keeping flights on time
Ensuring meal preferences are correct
Resolving customer claims in a timely fashion
Using automation to put AI to work has helped them improve each of these business areas.
As I said on stage, automation is the best path to deliver on whatever AI conceives. This is what we mean by AI at Work, which was the theme of FORWARD VI.
Cathay Pacific has deployed automation and AI in several areas, starting with its paper-based manuals. In the past, pilots and other employees would need to flip through hundreds of pages of manuals to answer basic operational questions. In response, the digital team at Cathay Pacific used Gen AI and Specialized AI to make it much easier to find relevant information. Rather than searching through stacks of paper, employees can now type what they’re looking for into a search box, and the tool provides the answer.
This is just one of the ways Cathay Pacific has unleashed AI-powered automation throughout its many business units. Automation and AI have also helped the airline fulfill customer meal preferences more accurately, resolve claims due to damaged luggage, and improve flight timeliness.
To boost the impact of AI-powered automation at British Airways, Barr Miller and her team are focused on developing deeper relationships with automation champions in the organization.
We are developing very deep relationships in certain parts of our organization because we realize that you can tell a really, really compelling story if you can deliver a whole package of different automations altogether.
Sarah Barr Miller, Director of Data and Automation, British Airways
She spoke to how customers are realizing more benefits as a result of British Airways utilizing automation to make AI work harder for the organization. “And that’s what it boils down to at the end of the day.”
On stage, both Barr Miller and Masih shared videos that illustrated specific examples of how AI-powered automation is improving processes within their airlines and delighting the customer.
Editor’s note: if you weren’t able to be in the audience and missed those videos, we’ve got you covered. This FORWARD VI session is included in ‘The Best Bits,’ a three-volume series of the best of FORWARD VI. Register now and we’ll deliver the entire series right to your inbox.
British Airways has a division dedicated to helping customers plan trips. Hannah, an employee at the airline and the subject of the video shared on stage, is responsible for keeping up with hotel inventory to make sure they’re only selling available rooms.
The problem was, British Airways had hotels in more than 100 countries in their system, and there was no standard format for updating their inventory. Hannah had to spend hours manually sifting through spreadsheets, PDFs, and emails to get the information needed.
That changed with the help of the UiPath Business Automation Platform. Through UiPath Document Understanding, Hannah was able to extract relevant information from spreadsheets and PDFs. Then, an automation sent emails automatically.
However, she still needed help with extracting relevant information from emails. That’s where UiPath Communications Mining came into play, identifying data points like hotel names, room types, and relevant dates, and feeding them into the email-generating automation.
But that wasn’t all. Some document types were completely unique, such as a table that color-coded its available inventory. For this, she employed UiPath Clipboard AI™ to transfer the data into Microsoft Excel and reviewed the information to ensure its accuracy.
Finally, Hannah used Gen AI and Specialized AI capabilities via the UiPath Platform to create emails that confirmed the processing of hotel room updates. Being able to use automation to put AI to work has saved Hannah (and, by extension, British Airways) countless hours of manual data review and has helped to improve the overall customer experience.
For Cathay Pacific, a key focus was easing travel frictions brought on by COVID. These were especially acute in Hong Kong, which had strict document requirements for passengers coming in and out of the city. Besides the manual effort involved in checking and verifying customer documents before their flights, managing the associated emails also posed a significant challenge. Email management consumed a significant amount of back-office agents’ time and made the process susceptible to human error.
That all changed with a software robot Cathay Pacific named “Fly Ready.” The bot was able to automatically draft customer emails, freeing up agents to focus solely on checking customer documents. This removed a huge bottleneck for the airline while ensuring a seamless travel experience for passengers.
The C-suite at Cathay Pacific was impressed by how quickly the bot went live, and how effective it was at providing a more seamless experience for customers. “Automation was something which helped us to not just solve a problem, but the problem for Cathay at the time,” Masih said.
With the UiPath Platform, British Airways and Cathay Pacific are using automation to turn AI’s potential into real value and impact.
Barr Miller noted that British Airways is “a very human-powered company,” and that their data and automation team consists of just eight people. They’ve made substantial progress and are expecting to save over 300,000 hours per year through AI-powered automation.
Cathay Pacific’s internal success metric is based on the number of virtual workers added to support the existing workforce. To date, they’ve given back over 200,000 hours a year to the organization. But that’s just one of the benefits—they’re using automation for compliance in addition to operational efficiency. It’s hard to put a dollar amount on how much AI and automation has saved the airline in terms of avoided fines, but Masih estimates it’s substantial.
Despite their significant progress thus far, both airlines have ambitious plans for using UiPath to make AI work harder in the future.
Barr Miller said that British Airways has “moved beyond proof of concept…we’ve moved into more of a scaling up…moving into this third phase of how we can go big.” Most of their use cases involve improving the customer experience, but to expand AI and automation further into the organization, they need to “win the conversation” with the C-suite. Barr Miller stated that continuing to demonstrate tangible results should help them get there faster.
Masih has bold plans for Cathay Pacific, saying that they’re “bringing AI and automation to every possible business unit.” After starting in finance, shared services, and other back-office functions, Masih is hoping to put AI to work in more front-office departments. They’re also thinking about how they can “empower and inspire customers through automation.”
Both of these airlines have realized impressive outcomes to date, but they’re nowhere close to where they want to be. As AI and automation capabilities continue to advance, they’ll continue to push the envelope on the kind of improvements they can deliver, keeping the customer at the center of everything they do. I expect them to lead the way in the industry going forward and will be watching with anticipation to see what comes next.
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