Posts with «travel & tourism» label

Hitting the Books: AI is already reshaping air travel, will airports themselves be next?

The holiday travel season is once again upon us! It's the magical time of the year that combines standing in airport security lines with incrementally losing your mind as the hands of your watch perpetually tick closer to a boarding time that magically moved up 45 minutes since you left the house and the goober in front of you is in the year of our lord 2022 still somehow confused about why we have to take our shoes off in security and goddamit dude stop arguing with the TSA and untie your laces already these tickets are nonrefundable.

Ai can help fix this. It can perhaps even give regular folks a taste of the effortless airport experience that more well-heeled travelers enjoy — the private jet set who don't ever have to worry about departure times or security lines like the rest of us schmucks stuck flying Spirit. 

In their latest book POWER AND PREDICTION: The Disruptive Economics of Artificial Intelligence, University of Toronto economists and professors Ajay Agrawal, Joshua Gans, and Avi Goldfarb examine the foundational impact that AI/ML systems have on human decision making as we increasingly rely on automation and big data predictions. In the excerpt below, they posit what the airports of tomorrow might look like if AI eliminates traffic congestion and security delays. 

Harvard Business Review Press

Reprinted by permission of Harvard Business Review Press. Excerpted from POWER AND PREDICTION: The Disruptive Economics of Artificial Intelligence by Ajay Agrawal, Joshua Gans, and Avi Goldfarb. Copyright 2022 Ajay Agrawal, Joshua Gans, and Avi Goldfarb. All rights reserved.

Ajay Agrawal, Joshua Gans, and Avi Goldfarb, economists and professors at University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management. Their previous book is PREDICTION MACHINES: The Simple Economics of Artificial Intelligence.

The Alternative Airport Universe

Before considering the threat AI prediction may pose to airports, as with everything, there is an alternative system that can show us what the other side looks like. One example is the alternative universe of the very, very wealthy. They don’t fly commercial and so have no occasion to deal with either the old or newly designed public airport terminals. Instead, they fly privately and go through private terminals. Normally, glitz, glamour, nice restaurants, and art galleries are going to be where the very rich are. But in the world of airports, private terminals are positively spartan.

The reason there is no investment in making private terminals better places is that the very uncertainty that plagues the rest of us doesn’t plague the rich. With a commercial plane, you are tied to a schedule, and those planes will leave late passengers behind. With a private plane, the schedule is more flexible or even nonexistent. If the passengers aren’t there, the plane doesn’t leave until they arrive. If the passengers are there earlier, the plane leaves then. The whole system is designed so there is no waiting—at least, on the part of the passengers. No waiting means no need to invest in making waiting more pleasant. At the same time, the rich don’t have rules about when they need to leave for the airport. They leave when they want. If more people could have that experience, then surely the optimal terminal would be more spartan than cathedral.

You don’t have to be rich, however, to see this alternative universe. Instead, just compare the world on the other side of the arrival gates to those at departure. When arrival areas are separated from departure areas, they are spartan. You might find some light food outlets, but everything else is designed to get you out of the airport. The critical issue is how close the taxi and parking facilities are, even though you may not be in a stressful rush. Do you even remember any details of arrivals at your regular airport, other than how best to get out?

The AI Airport Threat

Airports are no strangers to AI. Air traffic control has adopted AI-based systems to better predict aircraft arrivals and congestion. At Eindhoven Airport, a new AI baggage-handling system is being piloted whereby passengers simply photograph their bags, drop them off, and pick them up at their destination—no labels required. Subject to privacy requirements, it hopes to do the same with people. All this will help you get to your flight more quickly.

None of these things, however, hit at the key drivers of uncertainty in your travel to your flight — traffic and security. Change, however, is already here with regard to traffic. Navigational apps such as Waze account for traffic conditions and can reasonably estimate how long it takes to get to any airport based on the time of day. The apps aren’t perfect, but they keep getting better.

The apps free passengers from having rules that tell them how early they need to leave for the airport. Instead, they can add that flight time to their calendar, and an app tells them the best time to depart and schedule their time accordingly. Even better, in the near future, the uncertainty in the actual time a flight leaves will be taken into account. Rather than just telling you when you need to leave based on a scheduled departure, the app will tell you when to leave depending on the flight’s predicted actual departure. Again, there is residual uncertainty, but the leap from having no information to having more precise information could save hours of waiting time. Similarly, many Uber riders who previously thought they wouldn’t care about knowing the predicted arrival time of their taxi now cite that information as one of the most valuable features of the service. Uber uses AI to make that prediction. AI could also predict security line wait times. Put it all together, and you can use the AI to decide when to leave for the airport rather than rely on rules. As with everything, there will be some who leap at this possibility ahead of others. At Incheon and many other airports, waiting isn’t bad anymore, so maybe you don’t need to make an informed decision.

Those developing an AI-driven navigation app or flight departure predictor have no direct interest in the earnings of in-terminal airport activities. However, the value of their AI applications depends critically on how many people do not want to wait at airports. Thus, if airports are currently less costly to wait in, the value of those apps is diminished. The security line prediction is another matter. Airports claim that they want to improve security times and reduce uncertainty. But as economists, we don’t think their incentives are aligned with passengers. Yes, improving security times leaves more time to spend at the facilities past security. But, at the same time, it will reduce uncertainty and cause people to tighten their airport arrival times. Combined with AI that solves the other uncertainty for passengers in getting to the terminal, will the airports want to eliminate the uncertainty under their own control?

Accommodating Rules

Our broader point is not about airports but about rules. Rules arise because it is costly to embrace uncertainty, but they create their own set of problems. The so-called Shirky Principle, put forth by technology writer Clay Shirky, states that “institutions will try to preserve the problem to which they are the solution.” The same can be said of businesses. If your business is to provide a way to help people when they wait for a plane, what’s the chance you are going to ensure they don’t have to wait for planes?

If you want to find opportunities by creating new AI-enabled decisions, you need to look beyond the guardrails that protect rules from the consequences of uncertainty and target activities that make bearing those costs easier or to reduce the likelihood of bad outcomes that the rules would otherwise have to tolerate.

We can see this in the long-standing protection farmers employ in England — building hedgerows. A hedgerow is a carefully planned set of robust trees and plants that serve as a wall between fields. It is extremely useful if your field is full of farm animals, and you do not want to employ a person to ensure they do not wander off. It is also useful if you do not want heavy rainfall to erode soil too quickly or if you want to protect crops from strong winds. Given all this protection against risky events, we are not surprised that this practice was the origin of the term “hedging,” which evolved to have a broader insurance meaning.

But hedgerows come at a cost. By dividing farmland, they make it impossible to use certain farming techniques — including mechanization — that are only efficient for large swathes of land. After World War II, the British government actually subsidized the removal of hedgerows, although in some cases, that removal was excessive, given their role in risk management. Today, there is a movement to restore hedgerows, led most prominently by the Prince of Wales. In many situations, costly investments are made to cover or shelter a would-be decision-maker from risk. Miles of highways are cocooned with guardrails to prevent cars from going down embankments, hills, or into oncoming traffic. Most are, fortunately, never used, but each allows a road to be built in a way that might have otherwise not been sufficiently safe, given the fallibility of human drivers.

More generally, building codes precisely specify various measures to protect those inside buildings from uncertain events. These include fire, but also damage from weather, weak building foundations, and other natural phenomena like earthquakes.

What these protection measures have in common is that they typically generate what looks like over-engineered solutions. They are designed for a certain set of events — the once-in-a-lifetime storm or the once-in-a-century flood. When those events occur, the engineering seems worthwhile. But, in their absence, there is cause to wonder. For many years, Freakonomics authors Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner pointed out how life vests and rafts on aircraft — not to mention the safety demonstrations of each — appeared wasteful, given that no aircraft had successfully landed on water. Then, in 2009, Captain Sullenberger landed a US Airways plane with no working engines on the Hudson River. Does that one example of a low-probability event make the precautionary life vests worth it? It is hard to know. But we cannot conclude that the absence of a possible outcome causes us to assess the probability of that outcome at zero.

Levitt and Dubner’s main point, however, is that while it is often possible when protection measures are employed to assess the likelihood or change in the likelihood of underlying uncertainty over time, it is not possible to measure whether the investments made to reduce the probability of a consequence are excessive, as the very risk management strategy employed takes away that information. It is entirely possible that too much is wasted on something that, for other reasons, is no longer high risk at all.

Airbnb will improve transparency around pricing

Booking a stay through Airbnb can be a chore for a few reasons. Chief among those is the fact it's not always easy to tell at a glance how much you'll pay for your vacation rental, since the cleaning fee or security deposit may not appear until after you click on a listing. However, Airbnb is at last set to make pricing a bit more transparent.

CEO Brian Chesky wrote on Twitter that, starting next month, the company will offer the option to see the full price of a stay in search results, and on the map, price filter and listings pages. You'll still be able to see a breakdown of the full price, including Airbnb's service fee and any discounts. Moreover, Chesky says Airbnb will prioritize total price rather than nightly price in its ranking algorithm. "The highest quality homes with the best total prices will rank higher in search results," Chesky said.

I’ve heard you loud and clear—you feel like prices aren’t transparent and checkout tasks are a pain. That’s why we’re making 4 changes:

1. Starting next month, you’ll be able to see the total price you're paying up front.

— Brian Chesky (@bchesky) November 7, 2022

This is by and large a positive move, since the per-night prices shown in search results don't tell the whole story. Hosts may charge different cleaning fees or even fees for extra guests that aren't immediately apparent. Showing (almost) the full price upfront should make it easier for folks to compare listings while reducing sticker shock at checkout.

There is one drawback, though. The price that you see in search results and on the map still doesn't include taxes. It would be helpful to see that at the jump as well, particularly given that many hotel booking sites show the full price with taxes included in search results. "Our thinking was that since prices in the US are typically displayed pre-tax, that we should go with this convention," Chesky wrote.

Elsewhere, Chesky said that Airbnb will offer hosts more pricing and discount tools. He noted that hosts want a clearer understanding of the full price users pay and what they should charge to help them stay competitive. Chesky added that users shouldn't have to undertake "unreasonable" checkout tasks like vacuuming or stripping the bedding. He noted that simple actions like turning off lights, chucking food in the trash and locking doors are reasonable, and that hosts should communicate those kinds of checkout requests before a booking is made.

FAA says Apple AirTags are allowed in checked baggage

Don't worry that you might not be allowed to slip an Apple AirTag into your luggage for your next flight. As The Points Guy notes, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has stated that AirTags are allowed on checked baggage. Any item tracker whose battery has under 0.3g of lithium is clear to fly. You can track your suitcase without fear of the airline taking action.

The clarification comes after worries Lufthansa might ban active AirTags in baggage. There were concerns the German carrier would interpret the International Civil Aviation Organization's (ICAO) guidance to forbid any lithium-powered tracker that can't be turned off, including AirTags. There was speculation Lufthansa wanted to forbid the tags to mask problems with lost luggage and other air travel problems. However, ICAO can only issue guidelines — it's up to officials to adopt and enforce rules, and there are none pertaining to these devices in Germany or the US.

Lufthansa issued its own statement clarifying that Apple's devices are allowed on flights. Both the airline and German regulators have determined that item trackers with small batteries and low power "do not pose a safety risk." The company added that it sought exemptions for AirTags and similar tags for checked luggage restrictions.

The FAA and Lufthansa statements theoretically settle the matter. While we wouldn't completely rule out governments or airlines altering their stance, there haven't been any reports of fires or other incidents that would prompt a change of heart. You can safely use AirTags, Tile trackers and similar find-my-stuff products to provide some reassurance during your next vacation.

The original space tourist hopes to go to the Moon with SpaceX

SpaceX's next lunar passengers could include one of the earliest civilian spacefarers. As CBS Newsreports, original space tourist Dennis Tito and his wife Akiko have signed up as passengers on the company's second planned Moon voyage. They aim to travel within roughly five years, joining 10 other travelers aboard Starship. Tito didn't say how much he and Akiko would pay for the trip.

Dennis Tito built his fortune as a financial analyst, but he's best-known for paying Russia $20 million to take him to the International Space Station in 2001, making him the first space tourist. Akiko, meanwhile, is well-suited to the trip as a jet pilot. She would be one of the first women to fly around the Moon in Starship, SpaceX said.

Dennis and Akiko Tito are the first two crewmembers on Starship’s second commercial spaceflight around the Moon →

— SpaceX (@SpaceX) October 12, 2022

SpaceX intends to have the spacecraft circumnavigate the Moon, getting as close as 124 miles from the lunar surface before returning home. The first journey is linked to Shift4 founder Jared Isaacman's Polaris Program and should include Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa alongside six to eight additional passengers.

While the news helps solidify SpaceX's tourism plans, there are more than a few challenges. To start, Dennis Tito is 82 — while he's stepping up his fitness regimen, he might be nearing William Shatner's age when the Star Trek icon visited space with Blue Origin. There's also the question of Starship's readiness. SpaceX has struggled to get its flagship vehicle up and running. While there has been progress, even the first orbital test flight might be months away. That, in turn, could push the first commercial flights beyond 2023.

Even so, this announcement could represent an important milestone. Thus far, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic have broadly pulled ahead in space tourism. The Titos' plans suggest SpaceX's program is finally attracting more interest, albeit from wealthy people who won't blink at paying a fortune for a lunar sightseeing expedition.

Delta invests in air taxi startup Joby to enable home-to-airport flights

Flying taxi startup Joby Aviation just landed a deal that could make your ride to the airport much more enjoyable. Delta is investing a total of up to $200 million in Joby in exchange for a home-to-airport flight service. Instead of hailing a car or paying for parking, you can have an eVTOL (electric vertical takeoff and landing) aircraft take you to the terminal without the usual traffic hassles.

The service will initially be available to Delta passengers travelling through New York City and Los Angeles, and will operate for at least five years after launch. It will exist alongside Joby's regular airport service in "priority" areas.

This represents a significant boost for Joby. It was the first eVTOL company to get key FAA certifications for airworthiness and carrier service, and now it's signing a "first-of-its-kind" (according to the companies) agreement with a US airline. The move could give Joby an edge over rivals like Archer and Wisk Aero that are waiting for FAA certifications or major commercial partnerships.

Joby has also been growing quickly compared to many competitors. It received $394 million from Toyota in early 2020, and bought Uber's air taxi business late that same year. NASA began flight testing the firm's eVTOLs in summer 2021. Simply put, it's in a good position to make flying taxis a practical reality.

'Immersive View' in Google Maps expands to 250 landmarks globally

If you recently traveled to a new city, there’s a good chance you used Maps to plan your trip. Google wants to make that process easier. Over the next few months, you can expect Google to expand the availability of its 3D “Immersive View” feature. As of today, you can use Maps to see photorealistic aerial views of more than 250 global landmarks, including Tokyo Tower and the Acropolis of Athens.

In Los Angeles, London, New York, San Francisco and Tokyo, it’s also possible to see a preview of where Google plans to take the feature in the coming months and years. In those cities, Immersive View includes a timeline functionality, allowing you to see a simulation of how a popular landmark will look at a specific time of day. Additionally, Immersive View works in conjunction with Street View, so it’s possible to explore nearby restaurants and shops. The idea here is to take the guesswork out of planning to visit popular landmarks and tourist destinations.


Live View is also about to get an upgrade. In LA, New York, San Francisco, Paris and Tokyo, Google is adding search functionality to the augmented reality feature. Now, if you’re looking for an ATM, restroom or a place to sit down and grab a bite to eat, you can use Live View to point you in the right direction. Android and iOS users can expect the updated feature to arrive on their devices in the coming months. Last but not least, Google announced today it’s making its eco-friendly routing feature available to third-party developers. That should allow companies like Uber and Lyft to add the technology to their apps, helping their drivers create fewer emissions.

VW's latest concept is a self-driving travel pod that can replace short flights

Many automakers dream of self-driving cars that are effectively lounges on wheels, but VW is taking things one step further. The brand has unveiled a Gen.Travel "design study" EV that it hopes could replace short flights. The four-person travel pod would be completely autonomous (that is, SAE Level 5) and revolve around a modular interior that can be customized for each trip. Businesspeople could work at a conference table during a ride, while red-eye travellers could use two seats that convert into beds.

The Gen.Travel could also be more comfortable than even some nicer airline seats. Dynamic lighting would not only help maintain natural sleep cycles, but reduce motion sickness. A configuration with front seats could keep children (and let's be honest, adults) entertained with augmented reality. While the bubble-like cabin is built to maximize your view of the outdoors, it promises both safety and isolation for sleeping passengers.


VW didn't outline performance. However, it said that a combination of AI and platooning (automated driving in convoys) could extend the range.

This is a research project meant to test driverless pods as "mobility-as-a-service" options. You probably won't ever sit in the Gen.Travel. It's a real prototype, though, and VW says features might find their way into production cars. We wouldn't count on all of them reaching the self-driving machines VW expects to make from 2025 onward, but don't be surprised if future robotaxis seem very familiar.

Starlink will deploy satellite broadband on Royal Carribbean cruise liners

Cruise ship giant Royal Caribbean has announced that it will equip its fleet with SpaceX's Starlink broadband satellite internet service. The dishes are designed to provide a "better onboard experience for guests and crews fleetwide," and will be installed on its Royal Caribbean International, Silversea Cruises and Celebrity Cruises ships. 

Earlier this year, SpaceX unveiled Starlink Maritime for boats at a cost of $5,000 per month, on top of a hardware investment of $10,000. In comparison, the standard residential Starlink setup's hardware costs only $599, while the service costs $110 a month for 50 to 250 Mbps speeds (Starlink also offers a premium service that costs $500 per month with up to 500Mbps speeds). The Maritime service will deliver up to 350 Mbps download speeds.

The company tested the service earlier this year, offering packages called "Voom Surf" and "Voom Surf & Stream," according to Royal Caribbean Blog. That indicates that the service will likely be a paid upgrade, something that's usually not cheap on cruise ships. The testers saw respectable upload and download speeds and said they were able to watch YouTube and Netflix videos "with no lag or buffering." 

Those speeds may change when the service is fully commercialized, though, depending on how popular it is and how many Starlink dishes Royal Caribbean uses on each ship. Depending on the line, the company's boats can carry anywhere from several hundred to nearly 7,000 passengers. 

The cruise industry has struggled post-pandemic due to staffing, inflation and other issues. Starlink will be a good marketing point for Royal Caribbean, however, as cruise ships have notoriously poor internet service. Starlink, meanwhile, is aggressively pursuing the travel industry, announcing partnerships with Hawaiian Airlines and JSC, while also recently launching a Starlink service for RVs and campers

Airbnb starts testing anti-party tech in the US and Canada

Airbnb is starting to test anti-party technology in the US and Canada. It announced a permanent ban on all parties and events at host properties worldwide back in June. Airbnb brought in such rules on a temporary basis after the COVID-19 pandemic hit to abide by social distancing restrictions.

The company began trialing similar tech in Australia last October. Airbnb says it was able to reduce the number of unauthorized parties in areas where it was using the tools by 35 percent. It's now rolling out the system more broadly in that country.

The anti-party tools look at several factors to detect "potentially high-risk reservations." They consider elements such as how long the prospective guest has had an Airbnb account, how far away the listing is from where they're based and their history of positive reviews. The system will also bear in mind the length of the trip and whether someone is trying to make a booking during the week or at the weekend.

It may, for instance, flag a planned stay of one or two nights over a weekend in the same city where the guest lives. Airbnb says that users who are precluded from staying at an entire home because of these measures can still book a hotel room or a private room. The host is more likely to be at the property in the latter case.

The company says it's trying to tackle unauthorized parties to the best of its ability. This system builds on tools that had a narrower focus on guests aged under 25, particularly those who wanted to stay nearby and didn't have positive reviews. Airbnb noted that the tools can't entirely prevent parties from taking place at listings. It has a tip line for neighbors to contact staff if they believe a party is taking place at a nearby host property or they have other concerns.

"We anticipate that this new system will help prevent more bad actors on our platform while having less of a blunt impact on guests who are not trying to throw a party," Airbnb wrote in a blog post. "While we are consistently willing to make trade-offs in the interests of building trust, our goal is to make these systems as precise and fair as possible to support our hosts and guests." Looking ahead, the company says it will detail the results of the test in the US and Canada and reveal other measures it plans to take to stamp out unauthorized parties.

GM is doubling the size of its Super Cruise network in the US and Canada

Since introducing its Super Cruise advanced driver assistance suite in the Cadillac CT6 back in 2017, General Motors has worked steadily to expand the number of lidar-mapped roads that the system can handle hands-free. The SuperCruise Network first expanded from 130,000 to 200,000 miles of divided highways in 2019, and will soon double in size — to 400,000 miles across the US and Canada — by the end of the year, GM announced on Wednesday. 

The Super Cruise system — and its successor, Ultra Cruise — relies on a mix of high-fidelity LiDAR maps, GPS, and onboard visual and radar sensors to know where the vehicle is on the road. So far, those maps, which dictate where features like Hands-Free Driving can operate, have only included major, divided highways like interstates with the big median barriers. Smaller, undivided public highways — aka State Routes — were not included, in part because of the added ADAS challenges presented by oncoming traffic, until now.

"This expansion will enable Super Cruise to work on some additional divided highways, but the big news is this the bulk of the expansion will allow Super Cruise to operate on non-divided highways," David Craig, GM's Chief of Maps, said during Tuesday's call. "These non-divided highways are typically the state and federal highways... that connect the smaller cities and townships across the US and Canada."


These will include Route 66, the Pacific Coast Highway (aka CA Route 1), the Overseas Highway (aka US Route 1) and the Trans-Canada Highway. "if you look at I-35 which is the interstate that runs North and South up the middle of the United States, and look to the West, you will see that the Super Cruise coverage currently is just the major interstates, which is fairly sparse," Craig continued. "But in the expansion, you can see that it's just a spiderweb of roads covering the entire area. All the little townships are going to be connected now." 


GM executives explained on a press call Tuesday that every new Super Cruise-enabled GM vehicle that rolls off the assembly line will be equipped with the full 400,000-mile capabilities, as will 2021 and 2022 GM vehicles outfitted with the VIP (Vehicle Intelligence Platform) architecture, such as the Escalade and CT5, via OTA update later in 2022. Vehicles with Super Cruise but without VIP which cannot eventually upgrade to Ultra Cruise, such as the early model CT6s, will receive a smaller update. 

There will be no impact on the annual Super Cruise subscription cost, but you will have to have the Super Cruise hardware already installed. GM execs on the call noted that folks who bought SC-capable vehicles during the chip shortage that didn't actually have the SC hardware installed cannot go back and get the system retrofitted in after the fact to take advantage of this update. In all, GM hopes to offer nearly two dozen Super Cruise-enabled vehicle models by the 2023 model year