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Innovation in the airline industry has come a long way. There was a time, not so long ago, when having seatback TVs on planes seemed too ambitious and making a call from 30,000 feet from the ground was an impossible idea. Now we complain when WiFi is down.

When it comes to air travel innovation, JetBlue is consistently at the forefront. And if the recent developments at the airline are anything to go by, then we can predict an exciting future. From improving airline customer experience to setting up a division specifically to support innovation, JetBlue appears to be all in.

JetBlue Technology Ventures

Earlier last year, the airline launched JetBlue Technology Ventures during its 16th anniversary of its first flight, which took off in 2000. They’re the first U.S. airline to establish a venture capital subsidiary in Silicon Valley that’s dedicated to investing in travel technology startups. Their goal: lead the industry in finding next generation airline innovations.

Speaking of the launch, JetBlue Technology Ventures President, Bonny Simi said, “Our first priority is to spend time in the tech startup community and ensure we are contributing to the ecosystem. Through our partnerships and network, we are already hearing from various startups. We look forward to moving those discussions forward and announcing our first investment later in 2016. We are in this for the long view and are not in a rush to make investments immediately.” In April 2017, JetBlue (together with Boeing) invested Zunum Aero, a hybrid electric aircraft startup.

Innovative Holiday Planning

Usually, when we talk about AI, especially in the air travel industry, it’s easy to imagine a distant future. But it’s never been more present than now, as witnessed by the recent partnership between JetBlue and Utrip, the Seattle startup that brings together AI and human expertise to plan travel itineraries.

Back in February, Utrip managed to raise $4 million in funding to further its AI-based travel-planning platform. Utrip has now partnered with JetBlue to create a trip-planning portal that will make it even easier for travelers planning trips in the U.S., Latin America, Mexico and the Caribbean. The portal, which can be accessed on JetBlue Vacations, will match flights, hotels, restaurants, interesting sites, activities, and more––saving users hours of having to map the vacations on their own.

Experimenting with Facial Recognition Technology

Since June, JetBlue has been experimenting with facial recognition technology. The idea is to replace boarding documents with a simple facial identification. Passenger photographs are taken at the gate before boarding, then checked against images filed at the U.S. Customs and Border Protection. Once a passenger identity is confirmed, they can board without having to show additional documentation.

While JetBlue is not the first to experiment with the facial technology, it is the first trial that’s been a collaboration between an airline and the Customs and Border Protection to replace boarding passes with facial recognition. The federal government will mostly use this to boost national security. However, JetBlue sees it as a way to improve customer experience and operational efficiency.

Breaking down how the procedure works, Executive VP for Customer Experience and JetBlue, Joanna Geraghty, says, “We hope to learn how we can further reduce friction points in the airport experience, with the boarding process being one of the hardest to solve. Self-boarding eliminates boarding pass scanning and manual passport checks. Just look into the camera and you’re on your way.”

What's Next for Airline Innovation

Recently, Head of Digital Commerce at JetBlue, Maryssa Miller spoke about innovations and trends that promise to disrupt customer experience in the near future. Among her highlights, Miller suggested faster deployment of emerging technologies. She noted that, while the industry understands the potential benefits of emerging technologies, it’s not adopting them fast enough to address growing customer and employee needs.

She also talked about AI (of course) and revealed that it’s very much on JetBlue's agenda. She explained that, with AI, passengers’ questions can be answered in a more effective way, freeing up time for staff members to focus on more complex issues. Noting that people have embraced technologies such as Google Home and Alexa, Miller said that the air travel industry is bound to change. Thus, must be prepared.

On concerns arising from the increasing use of robotics and automation in the industry, she insisted that new technology will only make things better saying, “I think [robotics] is actually going to increase jobs in other areas, as much as it might eliminate the more transactional ones.”

So, maybe innovation really is “any time you’re doing something in a better way” and about tweaking “around the edges” of an existing product or service. But sometimes it’s also replacing boarding passes with facial recognition or developing electric aircraft. And JetBlue seems intent on being innovative on all fronts.


Learn more about how airlines are tapping into Silicon Valley's innovation ecosystem to their advantage.

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