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Since late Friday night, Georgia Tech student Simon Chow has been mulling over a problem Delta people think about all time – how can the travel experience be improved for customers?

It’s Saturday morning now, and Chow – after a long night of coding, coffee and a quick trip to Radio Shack – thinks he has the answer: Adding sensors to overhead bins.

Simon Chow, Georgia Tech Hackathon Delta grand prize winner
“Right now, flight attendants and gate agents don’t have the visibility of when that space fills up, and when it does fill up  there can be a hold up in the boarding process,” Chow said. “Our idea looks to change all of that. By linking sensors to a web-based dashboard, agents can see and plan better during that process.”

While Chow and his two teammates are the ambitious Tech students they seem to be, they’re not just doing this for fun.

He and more than 1,000 other students are participating in Georgia Tech’s third-annual “hackathon,” HackGT, to come up with cutting-edge solutions to corporate America’s trickiest problems. Delta, one of the event’s 30 sponsors, gave the students who flew in from universities all over the country 48 hours to “hack” – meaning, in this instance, solve problems by writing computer code – anything related to air travel, including improving airport and corporate traveler experience.

While Delta has no immediate plans to deploy concepts from the hackathon, it does give the airline access to a wealth of ideas.  Meanwhile, the students get to interact with companies in the tech space and, if they win, add a unique and impressive item to their resume.

Students working on developing app
“Delta’s participation in HackGT was a natural fit due to our strong partnership with the university, through recruitment and The Hangar, Delta's Global Innovation Center,” said Leann Litschke, Director – IT. “We wanted to engage those who have a passion for coding and get their ideas in solving complex problems with a creative solution.” The Innovation Center team, made up of Nicole Jones, Global Innovation Leader, and Rachel Lei, Innovation Consultant, organized the airline’s involvement in the event.

Litschke said Tech’s hackathon also fits into IT’s efforts to recruit top professionals for the more than 100 new positions opening in the department.

Engineering and computer science students flooded the Atlanta university’s Klaus Advanced Computing Center on Friday night when the event kicked off.  Students visited the sponsor booths, decided which company they would “hack” and got to work.

Two mentors at Hackathon
This morning, the students are deep into their design ideas, hunched over their laptops beside empty Starbucks cups, half-eaten bags of Cheetos and other all-nighter power foods. Occasionally, team members take turns napping on couches or in sleeping bags before coding again.

Running on almost as little sleep, several Delta employees are working the airline’s sponsorship booth at the event, acting as mentors to guide students towards innovative solutions. Diego Larrea, Manager –Sales Technology and HackGT volunteer, said the students’ enthusiasm is more than enough to keep him awake.

 “There’s so much energy here,” Larrea said. “It’s amazing to be able to get different perspectives from students who are really passionate in the technology field but also have that millennial mindset that we’re really interested in hearing from.”

While some participants aim to improve air travel by empowering Delta employees with technology, others, like Florida State University student Bing Lin, are focused on putting technology in the hands of the customer.

Student points to image on screen
“We had been playing around with the idea of AR (augmented reality) and how that could be applied in the air travel space, so we decided to create an app that could show a customer a 3D rendition of food items on the menu, as if they were right there in front of them,” Lin said. “Frequently, people can’t decide what to order because they don’t know what it looks like, so this gives them better awareness of that.”

Augmented reality, which has been recently popularized by gaming app Pokemon Go, offers a live view of a real-world environment, supplemented by a computer-generated element, such as sound or video.

In this case, Lin said the app would utilize the smart phone’s camera function to provide the real-world view. Then, when an on board customer focuses the phone’s camera on a surface, such as an empty tray table, a 3D image of the menu item would appear on screen, as well as nutritional information. The result, Lin said, would be an enhanced in-flight dining experience.

Like Chow and many of the other participants, Lin and his teammates hadn’t had a moment of shut-eye yet. He said he doesn’t plan on it either, not until his head hits the pillow when he returns to his dorm Sunday evening.


On Sunday afternoon, Delta innovation leaders selected their favorite ideas. Chow's team won grand prize in the Air Travel category. Other winners and their projects are listed below:

Grand Prize (Air Travel category): SmartBins by Simon Chow, Aaron Chow and Neil Goel

Grand Prize (Corporate Traveler category): fud by Arber Muharemi, Jacob Butler, Yashveer Singh and Rishabh Mahajani

Second Prize: RestItOnMe by Harsh Gosar, Minju Kwon, Cathal Killeen and Anne Chen

Third Prize: Easygate by Amy Han, Nikhil Prasad, Sang-Chan Kim and Sandeep Vijayasekar

Enjoy this photo gallery from the event:

Delta at Georgia Tech 'Hack-a-thon'