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Leadership and AI in aviation


Heini Noronen-Juhola

Haaga-Helia ammattikorkeakoulu

Published : 26.04.2024

Digitalisation is the super trend in aviation along with environmental sustainability. Many airlines, airports and other aviation stakeholders communicate about IoT, machine learning, augmented reality, virtual reality, robotics and other similar solutions. At the same time they discuss big data and how to lead business with data. The goal is to get cost savings and operational improvements in various areas. But the honey pot in the end is artificial intelligence (AI) in a wider perspective and everything it may provide.

Automatized management in passenger services

AI based solutions have become a norm in the society and are used widely in our every day life. As the amount of data and the calculation capacity in our computers and smart devices have improved, the benefits that can be gained through AI are increasing as we speak.

Algorithmic leadership can lead to automatized management in passenger services. Forming such AI related solutions in aviation has been a trend for long. Examples of AI managed passenger services are personalized offerings, chat bots and localised services. These applications are similar to the customer service solutions in other service industries such as banking or retail.

When there is no safety risk involved the whole process may in many cases be automatised. This brings cost savings, but if done poorly, automatisation may lead to lousy passenger experiences.

On top of the basic algorithms generative AI, such as ChatGPT by Open AI or Copilot by Microsoft, can create new content based on the data with which it has been trained. The challenge is that training of the algorithm is based on data created by a human being and it can contain inconsistencies or unethical points. This can be even dangerous in aviation since we are talking about a safety oriented industry that can not tolerate safety deviations. Situational awareness, resilience and the ability to create alternative options are crucial.

Safety critical operational processes

In the operations side of aviation, stakeholders such as airlines, airports and air navigation service providers have a much more challenging situation compared to the passenger service side. The processes are complex, there is plenty of operative data and the situations are changing all the time. The processes are safety critical.

Plenty can be done with AI in operational processes, but leaving the final decision to an algorithm can lead to a catastrophic result. Optimizing the flight route plan for fuel consumption, vectoring flights for an ideal approach to the airport or creating dynamic aircraft parking plan are processes that would benefit from AI. However, these processes may include unexpected circumstances untrained with the algorithm and leading to poor interpretations. This could cause severe safety challenges unless controlled by a human being.

Leadership in aviation is leading change

Artificial intelligence has gained big hype in the media. Everybody is talking about AI and has an opinion on how it will change the world. This applies also to business leaders.

As the aviation industry is in a cost savings mode especially after the financially challenging years of the pandemic, it would be tempting to transform processes to AI based as widely as possible. However, understanding the potential of AI is based on the business leaders’ ability for critical thinking and risk analysing. And, on how strong is the urge for cost savings.

Leading AI in aviation is leading change. Therefore leaders need discipline and deep understanding of the core functions of aviation. The transformation process has to be done in good cooperation between process owners and AI solution designers. Processes have to be analysed thoroughly to be transformed and redesigned from many angles. Too often risk analysis and creating various scenarios and levels for applying AI is bypassed. The aim and end result need always to be effective, safe and sustainable.

No matter how much we want the world to be fully digitalised, we still have passengers. They pay for their flights and deserve good service. We also have physical aircraft flying in the air while carrying passengers. No AI solution can be allowed to compromise the experience and safety in aviation.

Heini Noronen-Juhola teaches international aviation business as a senior lecturer at both Haaga-Helia and ChongQing technical university.

Picture: Shutterstock