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Delta tests chatbots and other ideas at innovation center

Could Alexa or Siri someday give you your flight status or check in for a flight? In the future, could a ride in an autonomous vehicle become part of a itinerary booked by a passenger with an airline?

Those are some of the questions Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines is exploring on the seventh floor of the Centergy building at Georgia Tech's Technology Square.

About 20 people work at the Delta office space called The Hangar, including a handful of Georgia Tech interns. The employees have titles like "innovation consultant" and "customer experience designer."

The Hangar has been open for about a year with a $2 million grant from Delta. It's one of a number of innovation centers at Georgia Tech borne of partnerships with major companies including AT&T, Home Depot and Coca-Cola.

It’s no secret that Delta needs to improve some basic operational functions, like rebookings and crew tracking in the wake of mass cancellations and meltdowns over the past year. But the company is also pushing to improve how it delivers other amenities and services.

Delta is "a company with problems. They've got things they'd like to improve," said Georgia Tech president Bud Peterson. "We've got people who are looking for problems and [Delta] is looking for solutions."

Along with work stations and meeting areas, the open office space also has a few rows of airplane seats for testing, a prototype of a device installed in the ceiling to count people walking by and an Amazon Echo that might be able to tell you the status of your flight.

Delta's other efforts to prepare for the future of travel include hackathons and a sponsored course at Savannah College of Art and Design focused on what air travel will look like in 2027. The airline also invests in startups that are pioneering new technologies Delta may be able to use.

Delta has tested other technologies including a chatbot that lets business class passengers choose their in-flight meals several days before their flights and a mobile app to send digital hotel vouchers to customers whose flights are cancelled, allowing them to find and choose a hotel room more easily. 

Delta chief operating officer Gil West said that about 10 years ago when the company was struggling with an issue in the integration of its systems with merger partner Northwest Airlines, "I jokingly said, 'You know we can go down to Georgia Tech today and get a couple of engineers and have this done tomorrow.'"

The nature of a large company, West said, is "there's a bit of a gravitational field that kind of pulls everybody back to the core. Which is tough to overcome when you're trying to innovate. This gives us a satellite location [where] we can really experiment and learn."

Other technologies Delta is testing are to help employees do behind-the-scenes work or get their jobs done in the airport more easily. One example is wearable devices that allow flight attendants in different areas of the plane to communicate easily with each other and with gate agents about issues such as when overhead bins are full. That can, for example, allow flight attendants to better direct passengers looking for space for their bags, and to alert gate agents to start printing gate check tags.

The device to track people walking by is part of a test of technology to track how many people are in Delta Sky Clubs -- while passengers check in to Sky Clubs, they don't check out, and some stay for hours while others come in for just a few minutes. At $495 for a one-year membership, overcrowding during peak times can become a frustration for members, but Delta says it can improve service such as catering if it knows how many guests are in the club at any one time.

The airline has also tested using drones to inspect planes after lightning strikes, and is also exploring ways to improve pet travel.

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