Will A.I. Make Travel Less of a Headache?

How AI could impact travel


Artificial intelligence offers some solutions and challenges to travel. 

Summer’s officially here — and, unfortunately, so is the overwhelming wave of travelers filling each and every airport. Snaking lines and crowded gates have become all too common, and flight delays are pretty much expected. Suddenly, that much-needed beach escape you’ve been saving up for all year doesn’t seem like it’ll be all that relaxing after all. But what if technology could lend an artificial hand in untangling the mess that air travel has become?

Experts believe artificial intelligence could not only make travel more seamless but also ultimately more secure. Peter Evans, CEO of the A.I.-powered tech company Xtract One Technologies, explains that the technology has what humans don’t have — immediate scale and speed. Meaning, it could automatically detect everything from a suspicious-looking bag to a lost child much faster than a human could.  

“A.I. is very, very good at looking at all of the information presented,” Evans tells Katie Couric Media. “It can swiftly sort out billions of points of data to see whether or not someone or something should be flagged as a potential threat, for example.”

As the interest in artificial intelligence continues to build, here’s how it could transform the travel industry.

How A.I. can streamline the airport check-in process

Artificial intelligence is already popping up in airports all over the world, as it becomes increasingly used to screen passengers passing through security checkpoints. At least 25 airports across the U.S., including Reagan National in Washington D.C. and Los Angeles International Airport, have started using A.I.-driven facial recognition as part of a pilot project. Eventually, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) plans to expand the ID verification technology to more than 400 airports. 

“What we’re trying to do with this is aid the officers in determining that you are who you say who you are,” Jason Lim, identity management capabilities manager, said at a demonstration of the system, according to the Associated Press.

So how does this facial recognition work? Well, a passenger inserts their driver’s license or some form of identification into a slot, and then a camera on top of a screen takes a photo of them. This technology checks to make sure that people match their IDs and that what they’re showing to get through security, board a plane, or pass through immigration is authentic. 

Donning a new ‘do, or convinced your face has drastically changed with age? TSA says its facial recognition system should still recognize you — even if you feel unrecognizable to yourself. 

How A.I. can improve airport security 

If you don’t have TSA pre-check, you know the pains of getting through airport security. One of the most frustrating parts about travel is having to unpack all of your items from your carry-on, and then try to achieve the same level of organization you started with as you hurriedly shove everything back in. You might think you removed anything remotely metal from your person, but somehow there’s some secret metallic fiber in your shirt or hair tie that sends off alarms. All the while, your gate — and long-awaited getaway — seems to move farther and farther away. 

But, thanks to A.I., you might not have to worry about the seemingly unbeatable game that is airport security in the future. New technology can help suss out various objects, such as a phone and computers, that previously needed to be taken out of your pocket or luggage and scanned separately to make sure they’re not dangerous items during the TSA screening process. 

But how does it work exactly? While there might be some variation, Evans explains that when his company’s specific A.I. system — Smart Gateway — detects a weapon, it’ll generate a photo of that person and show a red circle around where the potentially dangerous object is on their body, which the TSA agent can pull up on a company-issued smartphone or device. “We use sensor technology to detect characteristics of a knife or some other kind of weapon,” says Evans.

An end to lost baggage? 

If you’ve ever watched your suitcase sitting on the tarmac as your plane pulled away, or had to buy overpriced promotional clothing at your hotel because your belongings never arrived, you know how inconvenient lost luggage can be. The TSA, which operates its own lost-and-found system at more than 300 of the nation’s 430 airports, logged more than 552,000 unclaimed items last year, and only 10 percent of those are returned to their rightful owner.

Luckily, A.I. can help cross-reference images and data submitted by travelers to sort through lost bags faster than traditional baggage handlers. Several tech companies have popped up in this space, and not every airport uses the same one. For instance, Salt Lake City International Airport and Los Angeles International use the online platform Crowdfind. Its system allows customers to search and file claims for their lost items 24/7, so you no longer have to worry about not being able to reclaim your luggage because TSA’s lost-and-found has closed for the night.

Meanwhile, Austin-Bergstrom International Airport in Texas opted for Chargerback, which similarly streamlines the entire lost-and-found process by automatically locating and connecting lost luggage with their rightful owners. That said, these companies don’t usually handle the physical shipment — that’s something airlines are usually responsible for, according to TSA.

What’s perhaps even more valuable is that A.I. can help with lost luggage from happening in the first place, which cost the airline industry around $600 million in 2020 alone. According to the IT airline provider SITA, 47 percent of mishandled bags happen during flight transfers. In response, the company has introduced a system that automatically reroutes bags if they miss a flight. It also offers end-to-end bag tracking, and if your bag doesn’t make it, you get an alert right away, so you’re not left anxiously waiting at baggage claim. “It’s just like ordering a pizza or an Amazon package — you can track your luggage while it’s en route,” SITA director of baggage Nicole Hogg tells Katie Couric Media. 

The problem with A.I. in airports

These new processes have been championed by A.I.-driven software companies as a way to help prevent bottlenecks. However, others are pointing out flaws. 

Despite this boost in efficiency, some experts worry that facial recognition technologies perpetuate existing racial bias by misidentifying and targeting people of color. For instance, the National Institute of Standards and Technology found that face recognition technologies across 189 algorithms are the least accurate on women of color, with error rates up to 34 percent, compared to white men. Even small error rates can result in a massive headache: Social justice advocate Tawana Petty told Katie Couric Media a 3 percent error rate translates to more than 68,000 people per day.

“There are so many systemic issues concerning racial inequities that, when you layer technology on top of it with no federal regulation in place, it creates a situation where people can be added to watch lists and racially profiled,” says Petty, who’s director of policy and advocacy at the Algorithmic Justice League. 

The reality is that facial recognition technology could potentially put all of us in jeopardy by posing serious privacy and safety risks due to the lack of transparency on the government’s handling of this data. “We need to slow down these massive extractions of data, especially biometric data because it’s not as simple as changing a password — it’s your face,” says Petty.

While A.I. can certainly help alleviate some of the inconveniences of travel, its solution isn’t necessarily a simple one and offers some real challenges as well as calls for more accountability. “We should have less conversations about how we get the public to trust this tech and more conversations about how we build trust,” says Petty.