Delta's CES Appearance Puts Things Into Perspective

Delta, Technology

Delta CEO Ed Bastian gave a keynote speech at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) on Tuesday. Let that sink in for a minute. The idea that an airline would give a speech about technology on the world’s biggest technology stage would have been laughable just a few short years ago, but Delta has been dreaming big. The airline obviously wants to prove that it is forward-thinking, and it’s not your father’s airline. It may have succeeded, but it also did more than that. It highlighted where its priorities are, and some may take issue with that. It also highlighted just how far behind the other airlines are.

First, if you have way too much time to spare, here’s the full speech. Skip ahead to 34 minutes and you’ll see where Ed begins his talk. It is well over an hour after that, so like I said, you’ll need some time to spare. If you’d rather, you can find highlights here.

What Ed Announced

In the course of the talk, Ed brought out guests, showed some expensive-looking videos, and presented a few developments that the airline is either exploring or implementing. I can’t even fathom how much Delta spent on putting this whole package together.

Was there anything interesting? Maybe. But this is really more about future technology that may someday improve the travel experience. Sure, there are a few things happening now, but the really cool stuff is down the line.

Here’s what was announced that I found most interesting:

Fly Delta app as a Digital Concierge
Delta has been frequently adding more functionality to its app, and some of this is no different. For example, it’ll soon update the app to alert you when your boarding group is boarding, not just when the flight starts boarding. I like this a lot. But the bigger announcement is the effort to extend beyond just the flight into the whole journey. Delta is partnering with Lyft so you can get alerts on when to order your ride depending upon traffic and weather. You’ll also be able to pay for your ride with SkyPesos. This all seems to be about turning the app into a digital version of the Delta Red Coats, the special services agents that can help you with just about anything.

Improving IFE
Beyond the usual efforts to provide better and more interesting content (which Ed highlighted with an interview of the writer of “The Farewell” at CES), Delta is making it easier to actually watch IFE. I love the move to allow you to watch some content (presumably restricted by licensing agreements) on the Fly Delta app from the moment you check in. Might as well start watching on that Lyft ride to the airport, right? There are some other tests coming soon, but it’s all relatively minor.

Delta Goes Cyborg
If you look out the window while you’re on the ground during your next flight and see this, do not panic:

Delta is playing with exoskeletons that employees could wear to be able to walk and lift with much less effort. This is cool, yes, but it’s also probably insanely expensive and I doubt we’ll see it in widespread use beyond maybe in some cargo warehouses.

A Simulation to Solve Problems
I’m pretty sure t that I understand less than half of what’s discussed in this release, but as I understand it, Delta is building a giant simulation of its full operation. Then when weather is bad, it can program the simulation to run and determine which course of action will be best for the operation in real life. This sounds very complicated. I think I’ll just take the blue pill and remain happily ignorant.

Madness: Screens That Show Personal Messages to Everyone
This is the one announcement that really blows my mind. Delta is working with a company that has a great name, Misapplied Sciences, to put PARALLEL REALITY screens to work. The video in the press release shows it like this:

Basically, instead of scanning a screen to find your flight in a sea of flights, this will see you and show you the information you need for your flight. But it will only show it to you. Meanwhile, the guy next to you will see something completely different. This is being tested in Detroit this year, and up to 100 people can see personalized messages at the same time. If you want to test it, there’s a boarding pass scanner. But how does it know where you are after that to show you the tailored message? I’m already working on a more in-depth post on this one, because it is fascinating.

There were also a couple other things about funding programs, etc, but you get the point. Delta has put a lot into some cool stuff. That brings me to the bigger picture.

The Other Airlines Are So Far Behind

It really is incredible to think about just how far behind the other airlines are. American is busy spending its time trying to run an operation. Most of the communications I’ve received lately are about how well things are running after a disastrous year. Oh yes, and it is testing using Google Assistant as an interpreter in the LA Admirals Club, but that’s small-scale stuff. United is finally starting to focus on things that are more than just “basic blocking and tackling” — like the ConnectionSaver product — but that’s just like graduating on to “advanced blocking and tackling.” There’s a lot of catching up to do, but Delta keeps leaping ahead and making it harder for others to get there.

I don’t know how much Delta paid to put all this together, but it clearly just wanted to show the world that it isn’t just an old airline flying airplanes around. It is thinking broadly and far out into the distance, and it is putting money toward those efforts. Everyone else is just staring at Delta’s tail right now.

All that being said…

Delta Could Put Some Effort Back Into the Little Things

… I worry Delta is focusing a little too much on what’s flashy and cool. There are still some basic things that it should be resolving.

For example, I know frequent fliers will agree with me when I say that they should be able to go online to apply their upgrade certificates. Another thing brought to me by a reader: why can’t Delta invest a little money in telling you why your flight is delayed or canceled? Other airlines have done that to increase transparency, but Delta just says it’s delayed and that’s it.

Maybe this is by design. Delta prefers opacity to transparency as a general rule, and that is unfortunate and troubling. I would urge Delta to carve a little bit out to focus on improving transparency back in the “basic blocking and tackling” world.

That being said, it is still exciting to see an airline being so forward-thinking, and I don’t want to see that effort go away. The industry and travelers can only benefit from this.

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31 comments on “Delta's CES Appearance Puts Things Into Perspective

  1. Love the Terminator illustration.

    I was glad you brought things back into perspective at the end of the post. Delta’s operations are solid enough at the moment that they can afford to divert some attention & resources into what is flashy/cool/advanced, but they can’t let them distract them too much from continuing to excel at the basics. At the end of the day, if the product, service, and operations go dramatically downhill (or are **perceived** to be worsening by travelers), all the tech and fancy stuff won’t be of much help.

  2. I really feel like Delta’s jumping the gun on some of the “parallel reality” junk. There’s a lot of style, not much practicality. Doing away with the screens altogether should be the goal.
    Why – if I have my boarding pass for it to scan, and have my phone – do I need to stop walking and stand at a different screen to show me trivial information? Other than “looking cool”, there’s not much practicality to this in the near or medium term. It’s clown shoes.

    Now, if Delta wants to work on targeted audio that allows them to send me (and just me) that information verbally while i’m racing through the airport, THAT is something worth researching and investing in.

  3. “it’ll soon update the app to alert you when your boarding group is boarding, not just when the flight starts boarding. I like this a lot”

    I don’t – gives some people even more excuse not to drag their sorry asses to the gate area in decent time.

    1. In my years of flying people not being to the gate on time has hardly ever been a problem. One thing that has been a problem however are the million and one people hanging around and standing in the way of each other waiting for their boarding group to be called even when that boarding group is 6 boarding groups away.

  4. I laughed out loud when I heard Bastian was giving a speech at CES. This is all great and flashy with the peripheral stuff, but the big three carriers are woefully behind and stuck in the 1970s with their core business platforms: Passenger Service Systems (i.e. reservation systems). I mean, Delta’s had the most high profile IT failures over the past 5 years vs the others (Summer 2016 being the worst). It’s crazy to think of all the industries reliant on technology, airlines are way up there due to the size and scale of their operations. And yet, they are still on IT platforms designed 50 years ago! Because of this, all the carriers are able to do is put lipstick on them, and I’d say UA has done the best job, DL second, and AA is dead last. They really should think about their priorities in the IT department rather than focus on this gimmicky stuff.

    1. Yeah. I actually appreciate the operational simulation stuff, but that is very old tech. (Not bad, just old). So making a public announcement about that is just advertising how far behind the curve one really is. And second, that seems an odd announcement at CES. There are other analytic conferences for that.

  5. I have two thoughts on this colored by the fact that for the last 10 years I have flown enough to get status on only one airline and for me that has been UA (really CO, and got locked in…). New job with way less travel now, so not status next year…

    However, I did find myself on other airlines, DL once a year, WN a little more, AK a little less… And my sister frequently takes DL to visit my parents here. I have always found, either on my travel or looking up someone else’s, that the DL app and website are way less useful than UA, and to me that speaks to the last point that maybe they are putting resources into the flashy and not getting the basic job done there. Admittedly, I know the UA stuff much better from being Platinum, but I am not technologically unsaavy. Maybe that is a function that they like opaque, but that doesn’t help me speaking as a frequent traveler.

    The other point is on my DL flight last year, I saw the precursor to the message thing where the kiosk at the airport greeted me by name and company and had a little message about how they were happy to be flying in partnership with us. My thought was “wow, that is some f****** big brother BS right there”.

    1. DAB,
      and do you think that any airline that has negotiated specific fares with another company doesn’t know who you work for? What makes it big brotherly to name the company that you as the passenger and the airline knows facilitated your presence on that flight?

      As for the causes of delays and even standby lists which United provides on their open website that other airlines do not, how does the reason for the delay matter more than if the airline has figured out how to correct the delay and meet that schedule? Do you think that the passengers involved do not know the reasons? What difference does it matter for all of the world to be able to see standby and upgrade lists on an open website? Do you realize that other airlines including Delta provide that information to those that need to know?

      There is a whole lot of perception about what is better that is based on assumptions about how much information should be made available and to whom. Not everyone shares your (or anyone’s) perception of how much information is necessary or even helpful.

      1. Tim – The interconnectedness of the technology makes it big brotherly. Pretty much all society is trending in that direction – this was just an example of the first time it hit me where I saw the precursor to what they were demonstrating. The private sign on the wall is the same underlying database technology, but with more applications and bells and whistles thrown on top.

        My point about information does stand pretty much in direct opposition to your comment. I disagree almost completely with the thrust of your reply, and that the issue is one of perception vs information availability. As a frequent flyer, make all the information you have available to me, and I can control my fate and probably come up with better alternatives than the haggard person at the desk when there are irops… I didn’t qualify the information I was talking about – and I wasn’t talking about upgrades (for which I never have qualified on Delta anyway). Basic information about flights, availability and alternatives is easier for me to find on UA’s app or website than it has been on DL (or WN…) historically. I will admit, glancing at the apps just now, that DLs might have improved since the last time I took them. If the information is there, if you don’t want it, you can ignore it (or, for that matter will probably never need to fish around for it to try to access it). If it isn’t there, then you don’t have access and are stuck. I am not in a position where I would use a service like Cranky, say, for a corporate trip, and far better for me to have knowledge than to try to rely on any corporate travel agency I have seen try to manage irops (having dealt with at least four that I can think of).

        And, in specific example, if I know the real cause of the delay (which isn’t always forthcoming from UA, either…), I can figure out myself if I need to avoid Denver and routing through Chicago or LA (or SFO or whatever) would be better. Yes, a weather app (or looking at the weather channel or whatever) is going to go some distance in answering that. In one case I can think of, the info from United proved out that there was no feasible alternative no matter what I did (and on that one I even ended up in AUS rather than SAT, but that was better for me since it got me in over a day earlier, due to being able to interpret the information available), but in another I was able to use their information to materially improve my position when a flight had gotten cancelled. In both of those cases, if I hadn’t had information I would have been stuck somewhere other than my home for at least a day.

        And in both of those, Denver was actually the problem…

        1. DAB,

          Technology is not universally applied – which means that two companies are going to enable someone to do the same thing two different ways. Neither is necessarily right or wrong if they accomplish the same task multiple different ways. I use the apps and desktop sites of multiple airlines and there are differences but there just isn’t a quantum difference in capability between those that are widely used.
          As for managing IROPS, again, Delta was rebooking passengers automatically years ago and has enabled passengers to scan their own boarding cards to get new flights and amenity coupons from kiosks. Other airlines have had similar capabilities; many airlines have had online/app rebooking during IROPS. There are differences between best in class carriers but Delta is not far from the top.
          And, as you note, UA’s biggest operational challenge is that it operates in more highly delay prone airports than other airlines in the US – and UA repeatedly says that. Nobody told UA where it had to hub anymore than any other airline but if UA has more IROPs (and its on-time and cancellation rate says it does), then technology doesn’t fix the problem – it just makes people feel better in finding solutions to problems which other airlines don’t have to the same degree. Given that Kirby has committed to building UA’s connecting capabilities even as UA struggles during weather events more than other carriers, then UA’s on-time performance is not going to get better just because they employ more technology.
          And I know that you did not specifically address upgrades or standby lists.
          Chase,
          Again, ditch the emotion and discuss without bias about the issues at hand. Using mainframes is not just an issue for Delta. If airlines thought that they would not have the resources to support mainframes, they would make the moves to be where they need to be. Airlines use mainframes because they work. Finding a couple cherrypicked data points to argue a point – which wasn’t even caused by a mainframe but by other issues such as a power supply problem – doesn’t change the reality that airlines are capable of using technology that you think is obsolete. There will always be internal combustion engines that are used for some applications and there will always be mainframe computer systems.

      2. “As for the causes of delays and even standby lists which United provides on their open website that other airlines do not, how does the reason for the delay matter more than if the airline has figured out how to correct the delay and meet that schedule?”

        Speaking for myself, I like to know the reason for the delay, because it helps me act proactively to fix things, rather than rely on the airline to do it for me. If it’s a mechanical or crew issue, then it’s a matter of either waiting it out or switching to a different flight. If it’s weather at a hub, though, I know I’m effed, and it’s time to scramble to either re-connect through a different hub, ask for a re-route to AUS instead of DFW, etc. Yes, the weather part especially is something I can figure out myself through other sources, but it makes it that much easier if I can pull it up directly on the airline’s app and see in real time the extent of the delays.

        1. @Mean
          I get that you and others want to know reasons but that really doesn’t mean that you have any more or less control with or without it.
          Weather is predictable and even when ATC delays are in place, many US airlines are figuring out how to operate. Many delays and cancellations even in ATC delay situations – which are often due to weather – are caused by circumstances which the airline could control. Some airlines have spare aircraft and crews available while others have few backups. Most airlines also put waivers in place if known major weather events are happening anyway.

          I suppose if you really think knowing the reason for a delay is going to make a difference, then stick with where you get that info. But I doubt very seriously that you could show that more information is going to get you to your destination faster than an airline that simply operates more reliably even in bad weather or has the automated tools to move you and contact you with delay information – even without a reason – so that you can make whatever changes you want to make.

    2. DAB,

      I agree that there’s too much “Big Brother” in our lives today. That said, I know that for every one of us that balks at it, many many more are surprised and delighted by those sorts of little touches.

      1. The real issue is whether a company is given the opportunity to “opt out” for its employees – but again, the only way that Delta would know that a company is flying in partnership wiht Delta is if there is a corporate agreement. Even if you put the name of your employer in your FF profile, your company would not be flying in partnership with Delta.

        it is no different than going to the DMV and having the clerk verify if your vehicle is still begin financed by Bank X.

        Neither is announced to anyone other than you and only the parties involved know the relationship.

        The general agreement in the media is that Delta’s presence at CES was positive and most didn’t see the presentation is terribly revolutionary. Most say that the reason why Delta is succeeding is because they are consistently delivering a whole set of service elements that no other airline delivers as well as Delta does in total..

  6. Delta’s presence at CES is driven by its understanding that it needs to reshape its image as an old-school airline, not just in financial markets but also in consumer minds. The reality is that airlines use lots of technology but consumers reduce airlines down to basic transportation no different from an urban subway.
    People are motivated by technology and Delta has proven it gets it including by its decision to aggressively put internet access and personal audio-visual screens in front of its customers.
    I am personally interested in learning more about parallel reality – and while I am not sure it will be earth-shattering for a lot of people, most technology is not in in its initial phases.
    Chase,
    If you’re statements were backed up by facts, you might have a point but your statements are defined by self-defined parameters which define the outcome you want. What makes 5 years so magical other than it includes Delta’s power failure induced IT shutdown? Why not two years or ten years, which would include a string of IT shutdowns at United that impacted far more flights than Delta’s disaster did?
    And, as much as United wants to argue that its Connection Saver technology was ground-breaking, other airlines, including Delta, had similar technology years before. The bigger issue is that Delta is operating its network more reliably than any other large US airline and so doesn’t talk about technology to save its passengers from late flights. United’s on-time performance for 2019 went down and is now the worst of the big 4 as Kirby rebanked UA’s hubs to improve connectivity. UA has made a lot of progress but they haven’t found the right balance between achieving financial goals and running a best-in-class operation.
    Specific to airline technology, mainframe technology works – which is why it is still used. Further, there have been a host of other IT failures that involve “new technology” but they don’t get the press that airline failures do; if you doubt, I could send you screen shots from companies that systems quit working. If mainframe systems didn’t work, airlines would ditch them. If they could be cost-efficiently replaced with new technology, airlines would have done it.
    The reality is that most of the stuff Delta talked about doesn’t change much for most passengers but it reflects a company that is trying to be relevant in a different world than most people see airlines as in. And some of that technology – and the application of it – does distinguish Delta from its competitors; Delta’s use of personal seatback AVOD has set it apart from its competitors and continues to evolve.

    1. You are certainly free to treat whatever comes out of the Atlanta mothership’s press room as fact, but I think we all know better. But you make the point perfectly though, I was using a recent sample size but if you extend it out, all of the majors have had their issues with outages.

      As for the specious statement “[TPF] mainframe technology works”, wow. It may be relatively stable, but that’s a huge stretch on causation. The US Carriers have stuck with these old systems mainly because it allows them to remain entrenched in the ‘way of doing things’ and to avoid the ***COSTLY***, but NECESSARY upgrades to messaging standards. TTY and EDIFACT are not the way forward, and IATA as an organization has been trying to make strides towards NDC and XML messaging, but can only do so much when its large and powerful membership base is not ready to move forward as an industry. It’s a complex issue, but as other major industries so reliant on technology have moved into the 21st century, airlines are far behind as an industry overall. As the TPF developer population continues to age and retire, do we all of a sudden think the horizon is rainbows and unicorns, that things will remain stable???

  7. Regarding Cranky’s comment about DL needing to (re)focus on some basics, I can’t speak for the customer-facing side, but I know that on the ramp/operations side, there has been-and continues to be- a lot of thought put into continuous improvement. It’s not glamorous stuff like Bastain spoke about, but w/o it, the fun stuff is rendered moot.

  8. As an EXPLAT on AA and a Gold Medallion of DL I have noticed that the mobile app and the gate information signage is much better on DL than AA. But it would help if we could see a chart comparing the 4 big airlines displaying what key features and functions one has that another one doesn’t. Since I don’t fly UA it’s hard to understand the UA-related comments.

    1. Bob,
      just one example of the differences between Delta and the rest of the industry is the gatehouse screens that list upgrades and standbys. Delta specifically put its screens away from the gate desk so passengers would not be hanging around the gate desk (near the boarding door) to clog up traffic there.
      Just about every other US airline puts that information on backdrops at the gatehouse – even if it is also displayed elsewhere.

      Those are just philosophical differences in architecture that anyone can pick up if they pay attention.

      Multiple airlines accomplish the same goal of information upgrade and standby passengers but they do so very differently – and the reasons for even the placement of information in the gatehouse is different.

      Likewise, Delta recognizes the value of in-flight entertainment at the seatback AS WELL AS for use on customer provided devices. Same technology, different philosophies and application of it that result in different customer and company outcomes

      Delta is now playing w/ technology that other airlines are not just as some airlines are doing things that Delta is not. They could have been invited to the CES but Delta somehow managed to get itself up front at the most significant consumer technology conference on the planet. Others could have done the same – but didn’t.

  9. Funny how a major airline presents at a consumer electronics show and doesn’t speak at all about the backbone of their business – airplanes. I like Delta and almost fly them exclusively, but I find it funny that they talk about mobile apps and public notification systems while the service they provide is delivered via a technology that is 25+ years old. Yes, the A220 and A350 are nice new planes but Delta has a huge fleet of old metal. Want to “wow” me, announce you’re working with Boeing (or Airbus) on a new revolutionary aircraft to replace all those 757’s, not just buy 1980’s tech A321’s. (and I love those 757’s BTW.)

    1. you do realize that Delta has repeatedly said that it wants Boeing to build an all-new small widebody (the NMA) while Delta also said that it is not currently interested in the A321XLR or whatever narrowbody option that multiple other airlines think will work as a replacement for the 767.
      Delta has also said that the 787 and the A330 (in whatever version) are too large and too heavy as replacements for the 767 which is, for Delta, a ~240 seat or smaller aircraft.
      Given that Delta is the only US airline flying the A220, ordered as the Bombardier C Series, soon to be joined by B6, it would appear that Delta knows when it is worth replacing old technology with something brand new and when it is worth pushing manufacturers to freshen up old technology, and when old technology can do the job.

      It is precisely because commercial airplane programs take years to develop and get into service that “new technology” for airplanes is already the better part of a decade old by the time it enters service. That is not much different than for any other large manufactured items.

  10. Interesting. I would have said United has the best Application amongst all three of the big carriers. I have 1K status with United, Diamond with Delta, and Executive Concierge with American.

    American by far is the worst. Delta is good but is not as intuitive as United. It also feels a lot less personal than United from the beginning. I agree with the above comments that I find the United app to be much more intuitive on the things I need day to day (e.g., upgrades, updates on gates, etc.).

    I see that Delta is really pushing the technology but I wouldn’t have said that United is way behind. Frankly, I would have thought United was ahead.

    1. United & Delta are pretty equal in my book when it comes to mobile apps. They work really well.

      American? Now that I understand its quirks, I can deal with it. But I still don’t understand why I have to call someone who has to call someone else every time I need to change a flight (or even see what alternate flights have seats) on American when I can do that either on the web or the app without a fuss on UA, DL, or WN.

  11. Dear Ed Deltoid:

    You are suggesting that we buy clothing at an on-airport retailer? (“There’s a boutique across from gate A4”) A 49.00 jacket is, what, 109.95 at the airport boutique? I guess with your salary, it’s never an issue for you. Oh, and I’m sure you have positive space first class air travel too.

  12. I guess this is big-picture stuff that many will like, but I would take a more bean counter approach to airline technology. I’d focus on the truly practical stuff. Like as a passenger I’d appreciate knowing that my aircraft and crew are ready to go and when boarding will actually begin. As an airline, I’d like to provide this practical stuff. But I wouldn’t be spending money on gee-whiz stuff. Heck, I’d rather give the pax a 5 cent better free snack on board. Call me old school. Or just old.

    1. IAHPHX–

      This is what I was alluding to above. Bastain’s speech focused on all the novel parts of Sloane’s trip. My job is to make sure she gets from Point A to Point B on time in the first place.

      No one’s gonna keynote any of that, but it’s important work that a lot of people at DL work really hard to continuously improve.

  13. Sorry, but United’s app has been head and shoulders above the others for a while. I’m not buying that Delta is leader of the pack here.

  14. I like that Delta is focusing on technology. They carried over a lot of great IT features from NW and continue to innovate. A lot of stuff that we don’t see as customers (such as trying to match close gates at hubs to high value customers) and a tool that protects seating preferences in the event of an aircraft swap. That said, I agree with Cranky that I hope they don’t lose sight of basics: Delta’s website and app still don’t have the ability to book awards with all partners. Fully agree that applying upgrade certs should be able to be done online. Same for partners PNRs not showing in reservations. Hopefully Ed can achieve a balance of practical vs cool.

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