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.
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.