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Bots, voice assistants and drones aren’t just trending innovations, they’re a few of the solutions Delta’s global innovation center has been testing to improve customer and employee experiences.

“The Hangar” celebrated its first year in operation today with an open house and panel chat featuring Delta Chief Operating Officer Gil West, Georgia Tech President Bud Peterson, Delta Global Innovation Leader Nicole Jones and Choose ATL Executive Director Kate Atwood.

Panel discussion at The Hangar
“We aren’t chasing tech for tech sake,” West said when asked about Delta’s approach to innovation and the work being done at The Hangar. “We are looking for real opportunities to solve business problems and bring them back over to Delta to deliver a more frictionless experience for our customers and employees.”

West also talked about how an environment like The Hangar allows Delta to think big, start small and learn fast with minimal cost. He said this becomes even more important as the airline weighs priorities for investing in tools and technology.

The gallery showcase that surrounded The Hangar’s great room featured more than 20 projects Delta’s innovation team has worked over the past year.

Here’s a snapshot of some of the items in final phases of development or testing:

Pre-Select Meal Bot: Delta One customers have a number of unique and thoughtful meal options to choose from, but can only make their selection once onboard. The new pre-select meal solutions Delta is testing through May 24 couples interactive mail with SMS messaging via a chatbot. A subset of customers traveling on international flights in the Delta One cabin are being asked their meal preference via email. If they don’t make their selection within the email, a SMS message will be sent several days ahead of the flight to try and capture their meal preference.

Voice Assistants: Get your flight status, search for flights or even check in using only your voice ... with no phone attached. Delta is prototyping interactive voice solutions that will allow customers to do just that.

Flight Family Communication: Pushing out a single flight is a complex process involving countless variables and several work groups. The boarding process alone presents an opportunity to alleviate friction for customers and employees by improving communications among the employee groups working the flight. The Hangar, in collaboration with a cross-divisional team of Delta employees and the Operations and Customer Center developed a system of devices that allow for real-time action items for pilots, flight attendants and gate agents for their assigned flight. The improved communication between groups yielded a reduction in the amount of time employees spent traversing the jet bridge to communicate with one another in the test market. Providing employees with devices and real-time notification solutions allowed them to spend more time serving customers.

Mobile Gate Interface: A cross-divisional team developed a mobile application that allows lobby and gate agents to perform a number of flight-associated tasks without having to be tethered to a PC behind the gate counter. A total of eight features were identified as being essential in a gate agent’s ability to complete their flight duties, including assigning and reassigning seats, checking a customer’s reservation status and scanning boarding passes. This technology could also recognize when an agent moves from gate to gate, and give them the ability to aid customers without checking in to a gate counter.

Sky Club Occupancy Tracking: Delta Sky Clubs are popular destinations for Delta customers. Delta is exploring various technologies to measure traffic in and out of Delta Sky Clubs in an effort to better align staffing and operations during peak days and times. Heat mapping, mobile device identification, real-time video monitoring and infrared distance tracking are all technologies currently being explored for this application.

Drone lightning inspections: There’s nothing out of the ordinary about an aircraft encountering lightning, but using drones equipped with HD cameras to inspect for damage from lightning strikes is all new. Because lightning strike inspections can be time consuming and require trained employees to scour a plane’s exterior with their own eyes, Delta TechOps came up with the drone solution to speed up the process while enhancing inspection accuracy. Initial testing indicates that inspection times could drop by approximately 85 percent, meaning aircraft could return to service more quickly.

The Hangar will be utilized to develop software that can filter the images captured during an automated initial scan via drones and present those that have a high probability of being lightning strike damage. This will further automate the process and reduce the number of images that must be reviewed by inspection personnel.

Some other projects included in The Hangar’s gallery are cargo smart pallets, a sales mobile app, hotel voucher improvements and more.

Delta’s innovation ecosystem

“The Hangar” officially started up in early 2016 thanks to a $2 million grant from Delta Air Lines. A team of 20 works in the Midtown space to develop innovative customer and employee solutions by coordinating with operating groups across Delta, nurturing relationships with tech start-ups and tapping into the diverse talent of students at Georgia Tech and SCAD.  Earlier this year Delta announced a $1.5 million investment in Engage - an Atlanta-based accelerator supporting top tech startup talent in Atlanta. Meanwhile, the global airline is also tapping into its own employees through Innovative Flight Experience (IFX) weekends and regular feedback through the operation to generate ideas for solutions from within the business.

“The work being done at The Hangar is an important part of our innovation strategy, but it’s not the only one,” West said. “The Hangar often facilitates ideation and development of solutions based on what teams in the operation have identified as opportunities to make improvements. It’s really up to people across Delta to keep thinking about new ways to do things as technology evolves and to keep pushing Delta to be the best airline in the world for our employees and customers.”