British Airways trials A.I. at London's Heathrow Airport to reduce delays

Key Points
  • As technology develops, it is being used at airports in increasingly interesting ways.
  • While there are potential advantages, technology can cause disruption when things don't go to plan.
Jack Taylor | Getty Images News | Getty Images

British Airways (BA) has introduced artificial intelligence (AI) technology to parts of its "airside operation" at Heathrow Airport.

In an announcement Monday, the airline said that AI would be used to tackle challenges faced when an aircraft is being prepared for departure after passengers from its previous flight have disembarked.

It's during this time that staff on the ground undertake manual checks related to 18 different things, making records of what they are doing, British Airways said. These checks have to be done before the plane takes to the air again and are, among other things, related to refueling, the unloading and reloading of luggage, and cleaning of the aircraft's inside.

BA said that if one of these tasks encounters an issue, it could potentially disrupt the whole process, resulting in a delayed departure.

In a bid to address this issue, a start-up called Assaia has installed cameras at three aircraft stands at Heathrow's Terminal 5. AI is used to compare footage of the turnaround process with what is proposed on the schedule.

If the system notices anything that could potentially cause a delay, an alert is sent to the manager in charge through a smart watch, enabling them to act and ensure the flight isn't held up.

Assaia has previously taken part in the International Airlines Group's Hangar 51 accelerator program. The International Airlines Group is British Airway's parent company.

"British Airways operates up to 800 flights a day to and from Heathrow," Raghbir S. Pattar, British Airways' director of airports, said in a statement.

"We run a highly complex operation so efficient turnarounds are critical to ensure all 145,000 customers travelling through our home hub every day enjoy a punctual departure," Pattar added, going on to describe artificial intelligence as a "a rapidly evolving area of technology."

As technology develops, it is being used at airports in increasingly interesting ways.

At the end of October, for instance, London's Gatwick Airport announced it was trialing a new boarding system which used digital screens and human staff members to tell passengers the order in which they should board.

Other technologies such as biometrics are becoming an increasingly critical component of air travel too. In the U.K., some passengers can use a biometric passport to get through passport control without having to show documents to a border official.

In Australia, Qantas recently wrapped up a trial of facial recognition technology at Sydney Airport. According to the company, over 4,000 people signed up to use their "face as a boarding pass," with more than 200 flights leaving the airport with passengers who had used the technology.

While there are potential advantages from using technology, it can cause significant disruption when things do not go to plan.

In August, for example, British Airways suffered an IT problem which resulted in the delay and cancelation of flights. In May 2017, another IT failure resulted in 672 flights being canceled.