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Humanoid robots and chatbots won't replace people, Air NZ CEO says

Wednesday 23rd August 2017

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Air New Zealand's latest innovative bid to enhance customer experience is going better than expected but the airline has no plans to replace people with robots, says chief executive Christopher Luxon. 

The airline is partnering with Commonwealth Bank of Australia in a five-day experiment using Chip CANdroid, the bank’s social humanoid robot to help Air New Zealand customers check in and at the gate prior to boarding to Sydney.

"People actually really enjoyed the interaction and it probably went much better than we anticipated. People have interacted with it in quite surprising ways. We have a bit more time to run with it over the rest of this week. Then we will have a look at it and see what we have learned from it and how we can take it forward,"  Luxon told BusinessDesk.

He underscored, however, employees do not need to fear for their jobs as the robots augment the business, rather than replace people. "The reality is people want authentic people-to-people connections," he said. Similar to when Air New Zealand introduced the self-serving kiosks, the goal is to ensure people are not tied up with the transactional part of their jobs. "We want them forward deployed, interacting with customers more and more," he said.

"I am of the view that for the world to maintain productivity gains going forward in a global economy, we are going to need all the human jobs we possibly can and all the robot jobs we can," he said. 

Luxon said the airline expects to spend around $100 million in non-airline related capital expenditure over the next few years, with the bulk going to digital innovation.

"Innovation is really a part of everything we are trying to do to meet customers' needs and it actually goes back into the DNA of the company," he said. According to Luxon, Air New Zealand was the first to boil water for an in-flight cup of tea in the 1940s.  

Luxon said significant progress is being made around 3D printing and Air New Zealand is now able to swiftly report any problems with seat trays or seat components en route and have the necessary parts printed and installed before the plane embarks on the next leg of its journey.  

In the future, the airline may look at engine parts. "It means that you are not holding the parts that you may or may not ever use but rather you hold the programme that allows you to print it, rather than have your cash tied up in a lot of inventory," he said. 

On the robotics front, it is working with a New Zealand company called Invert Robotics. The company's robotic inspection platform can climb any stainless steel surface and uses advanced sensors and high definition cameras to feed detailed inspection data instantly to an inspector for immediate analysis.

"We can send a robot that crawls around the fuselage of the aircraft, looking for things like lightning strikes. We are avoiding our staff working at heights as a result and can identify things that aren't identifiable with the human eye. That's a great outcome where you get a better quality outcome and don't put people at risk," he said.

Luxon said not everything pans out as expected. The carrier trialled the Microsoft HoloLens in flight and quickly concluded it for engineering as makes it possible to look at the augmented reality of an engine and training engineers on that. 

Air New Zealand's first foray into artificial intelligence - a chatbot called Bravo Oscar Tango - is learning to answer 900 new questions a day, Luxon said. Again, the goal is not to replace human interaction, but to remove pain points for travelers, he said. "Technology makes it easier, quicker for them to get through the process with less frustration but equally we want to have people on board to help our customers as well," he said.

On the wifi front, Luxon said Air New Zealand may be ready to trial in-flight wifi by the end of this calendar year and wants to roll it out to all aircraft. Previously the challenge was a lack of satellite coverage to support the service over the Pacific but "we think that has changed recently. It's very much our intention to bring this to our whole fleet," he said. 

Air New Zealand shares recently fell 0.3 percent to $3.39. 


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