Interest Pieces Technology

The Role Of AI In Modern Travel

Artificial intelligence (AI) has become increasingly influential in numerous industries worldwide, and the travel sector is no exception. While to the untrained eye, AI may seem displaced in a travel context, the reality is that this innovative technology is revolutionizing the way that travellers plan, book, and experience their journeys.

From making personalized recommendations and offering contactless travel experiences to streamlining travel agent workflows and optimizing pricing strategies, AI is proving more instrumental in shaping the industry’s future by the day. As we move ever closer towards 2024’s summer period, there’s arguably no better time to look at the exciting travel opportunities possible with the help of AI. In the interest of fairness, there are important considerations to bear in mind, which this short guide will also outline.

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Understanding the AI landscape in travel

Before delving into the intricacies of AI applications in the travel sector, it’s important to establish the concept. It essentially refers to computers, algorithms and machines performing a set of tasks that would normally be human-led. This can range from writing content, calculating equations and creating images to extracting data, giving instructions and interpreting information. 

Businesses sector-wide are leveraging AI to perform numerous administrative and customer service-related tasks, as a means to preserve budgets, resources, and time, while empowering their (human) teams to be more productive. AI, contrary to popular belief, has existed for some time, but it has exploded in recent years thanks to the emergence of open-source generative AI chatbots like ChatGPT (as of March 2024, boasting roughly 180.5 million weekly users). 

As such, industry experts worldwide have highlighted numerous short- and long-term ethical considerations about AI’s continued evolution and presence in businesses, including travel. While many businesses have waxed lyrical about the efficiency improvements of adopting AI as an automation asset, others have expressed job displacement fears, data security concerns, and worries about misinformation. 

Currently, AI has a broad range of applications in the travel sector. Tools and software similar to or using the aforementioned AI-powered chatbots are being widely adopted by travel agents and intermediaries to handle preliminary customer queries and provide accessible support, FAQ answers, recommendations, bookings, reservations and other customer-focused tasks that would normally be entrusted to a human agent. Not only that, but AI algorithms can analyse a traveller’s personal preferences, historical data and real-time patterns to deliver bespoke and personalized recommendations. 

AI is also being integrated into various routine, operational situations like automated baggage handling kiosks, security screening, and passport validation processes at airports and other travel stations. It’s believed that automating and streamlining many of these otherwise human-supervised processes can save time and resources and optimize the passenger experience, but there is currently little data to suggest that this is true.

The benefits of AI in travel

It’s easy to argue that AI, if leveraged ethically and correctly, can fill pervasive gaps in the travel sector. Its continued evolution and integration in the travel space can offer various advantages for both customers and providers. Below is just a consolidated list of them:

  1. With careful human supervision and care, AI-powered tools can provide personalized, responsive, and efficient customer service support and suggestions. If AI can effectively and quickly answer initial queries and make tailored recommendations that satisfy traveller queries, with human agents intervening where needed, it can keep efficiency high and lead to a positive experience for the customer.
  2.  AI can streamline various operational processes in a travel agency, station or airport. Many AI tools can integrate with current systems, from inventory management and identity and access management (IAM) to product pricing, real-time asset tracking and management, and staffing levels. If leveraged correctly, facility and operations managers can gain greater top-level visibility and make informed decisions, all while potentially reaping long-term cost savings.
  3. The data and insights provided by AI can help travel agencies make more strategic decisions as far as their marketing, sales, and segmentation strategies are concerned. Aggregated data can be used to inform pricing strategy adjustments, advertising campaign ideas and emerging trends.

Considerations and potential risks

On the surface, AI’s continued presence in the travel sector looks promising and positive. However, while the benefits of AI in travel are evident, there are also important considerations and potential risks that travelers and agencies should be aware of:

  1. AI is only as reliable as the data it’s trained on and that which it collects. Many AI tools collect and process vast quantities of data in order to inform its suggestions and outputs. In the travel space, personalization is key to creating a seamless and positive customer experience, but travel agents must be careful not to utilize data to the point where it invades personal customer data privacy laws. They must ethically and lawfully obtain and use data to avoid misuse, breaches, or compliance fines.
  2. Following on from AI training data, there have been recent reports linking misinformation and fake news to AI large language models (LLMs). AI-generated content – be it used internally or externally – can perpetuate harmful stereotypes and biases that were present in its training data. As such, it can – unknowingly to a program incapable of independent thought – lead to discriminatory or prejudiced suggestions. As such, this can lead to reputational harm on a brand if these are allowed to propagate unsupervised, which is why human agents must manage all AI usage in their systems carefully.
  3. There is a risk that continued and excessive automation could cause complacency among travel providers and customers. As more tasks become automated, there is the potential that AI job displacement discussions could intensify, which is why companies must exercise caution to prevent an overreliance and over-dependence on AI systems and keep the quintessential human touch intact.
  4. The complex, ambiguous and opaque nature of AI systems can make it challenging for all parties in a travel transaction to understand how decisions are made. AI is still evolving with many people vastly and alarmingly unaware of how it truly works, not to mention the transformative potential it holds. As such, it’s clear that AI can be used for specific siloed purposes, and it would be naive for providers and customers not to take advantage of them. Accountability and transparency are both key in any outcomes partially or entirely driven by AI, as they could influence its future integration in travel.

The future of AI in travel

AI technology is evolving with each passing day, meaning that its integration within travel is only going to grow exponentially, much like its presence in other industries. From self-driving cars and other autonomous systems to facial and vocal recognition systems, the travel experience looks set to be increasingly tech-led in the coming years. 

Underneath AI’s continued evolution, however, there will be a growing emphasis on developing and implementing more ethical practices, standards, and regulations to address concerns around privacy, bias, accountability, and job protection. Travel businesses and customers will need to be increasingly vocal about the presence of AI in modern travel, as it’s evidently here to stay and its benefits are substantial. 

Continued awareness of its growth and addressing new and emerging considerations will be pivotal, but this can help the industry and customers work together to ensure a more ethical and responsible AI-led travel experience.