Airline Exec Raves That AI Is So Good at Sending Flight Delay Texts It’s “Hard to Tell the Difference” From Human Work

Good Grief

To keep air travelers abreast of delays, United Airlines has developed a use of artificial intelligence that the C-suite thinks is indistinguishable from human labor.

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal about its flight update texts, United's chief information officer Jason Birnbaum bragged that the airline's AI used to send those messages can be very lifelike.

"It got good enough," Birnbaum said, "it was hard to tell the difference."

While automated updates about flight delays are nothing new, United differs from other airlines in the level of detail and frequency of messages it shares with customers. The airline employs what it calls "storytellers" to make the messages happen, and hires these call center-based employees from non-industry backgrounds to minimize jargon and make the messages seem more conversational.

AI-re Fare

Rolled out before the pandemic and used to alert customers to COVID-19 precautions during that first year, United's flight update system broadened in 2021 as post-lockdown travel soared. And with it, the storytellers' messages became something of a punchline.

"United is achingly transparent in their explanations," veteran travel analyst and frequent United flyer Henry Harteveldt told the WSJ. "It’s almost to the point where [they say] a member of the crew had a toothache and is at the dentist right now."

As with other industries, United uses AI to "assist" its human employees, and in the case of its messaging system, the storytellers are now tasked with reviewing generative alerts before they're blasted out to passengers — unless a flight is delayed more than an hour, in which case it gets the personal (read: human) touch.

Otherwise, passengers are treated to what seems to us to be very obviously canned messages, such as "your flight is delayed because an earlier delay impacted your plane’s arrival."

So much for indistinguishability.

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