Air Travelers Can’t See All of It, but More Tech Is Moving Them Along

The time an airplane spends waiting for a gate after landing or waiting in line to take off could also be reduced. A group at SITA focused on airport management systems is helping to design technology that can synthesize data from many sources, including changing aircraft arrival times, weather conditions at destination airports and logistical issues to improve runway schedules and gate assignments.

Artificial intelligence software can also make a difference with rebooking algorithms, Mr. Etzioni said. When weather or mechanical issues disrupt travel, the airlines’ speed in recomputing, rerouting and rescheduling matters, he said.

The data streams get even more complex when the whole airport is considered, Ms. Stein of SITA said. A number of airports are creating a “digital twin” of their operations — using central locations with banks of screens that show the systems, people and objects at the airport, including airplane locations and gate activity, line lengths at security checkpoints, and the heating, cooling and electrical systems — monitored by employees who can send help when needed. These digital systems can also be used to help with emergency planning.

The same types of thermal, audio and visual sensors that can be used to supply data to digital twins are also being used to reduce equipment breakdowns. Karen Panetta, the dean of graduate engineering at Tufts University and a fellow at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, said hand-held thermal imagers used before takeoff and after landing can alert maintenance crews if an area inside the airplane’s engine or electrical system is hotter than normal, a sign something may be amiss. The alert would help the crew schedule maintenance right away, rather than be forced to take the aircraft out of service at an unexpected time and inconvenience passengers.

At the moment, people, rather than technology, evaluate most of the data collected, Dr. Panetta said. But eventually, with enough data accumulated and shared, more A.I. systems could be built and trained to analyze the data and recommend actions faster and more cost effectively, she said.

Air travel isn’t the only segment of the transportation industry to begin using artificial intelligence and machine learning systems to reduce equipment failure. In the maritime industry, a Seattle company, ioCurrents, digitally monitors shipping vessel engines, generators, gauges, winches and a variety of other mechanical systems onboard. Their data is transmitted in real time to a cloud-based A.I. analytics platform, which flags potential mechanical issues for workers on the ship and on land.

A.I. systems like these and others will continue to grow in importance as passenger volume increases, Ms. Stein said. “Airports can only scale so much, build so much and hire so many people.”

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