AI flight search tool for redeeming loyalty points

Skift take

Although Alaska Airlines' new AI flight search tool has its problems, it's a first glimpse of what the future of airline loyalty technology and search might look like.

– Justin Dawes

Alaska Airlines is testing an AI-powered flight search tool designed to inspire travelers in the early stages of travel planning and help them redeem loyalty points.

The tool allows users to ask for suggested flight destinations based on general interests, such as a whale-watching beach or a wine-tasting vacation. And – this is new – it allows users to search for flights that they can buy with specific loyalty point amounts.

Several airlines have said they are working on similar AI tools, but few have released anything yet, particularly one that addresses questions about loyalty points.

According to Natalie Bowman, managing director of product and digital experiences at Alaska Airlines, this is a first step toward a long-term goal of helping travelers go beyond just shopping for specific flights.

“A travel experience that focuses more on your end-to-end journey is our goal. For us, our loyalty program is key because we have so many partners where you can earn or redeem miles,” said Bowman. “We think AI could be a big factor in creating a really cool experience there.”

The tool also includes the network of 30 airline partners flying to destinations worldwide that Alaska built last year.

“That's not something that's very visible yet, and so this is a big opportunity to show people that … they could come to Alaska to book global travel,” Bowman said. “And I think in order to do that, we need to get this into the hands of more people who aren't already coming to Alaska Airlines, and that's going to be a big opportunity for us to use that to attract new audiences.”

The airline released the tool to 5% of website visitors in mid-April. It will be available to all website visitors in June.

Alaska provided Skift with a link to the tool's website so readers could try it out.

How it works

One of Alaska's engineers quickly designed the tool as a side project using software development technology from Microsoft and generative AI from OpenAI.

“We found that what he created was wonderfully simple,” Bowman said. “It was everything we needed; It didn’t need a lot of complexity.”

The user can ask for flight suggestions based on a general prompt, such as: E.g. “Take my family to a beach with whales this summer.” It is supposed to respond with flight options for multiple destinations and each result is paired with a brief description of why it is included.

The prompt: “Take my family to a beach with whales this summer.”

Users can request flights that they can purchase for a certain number of points. The answer includes what the cost would be if the specified number of points were spent.

“This is an issue that we know our mileage plan members have,” Bowman said. “People spend a lot of time looking for award flights and this helps them create a shortcut to get there very quickly.”

The prompt: “Travel to Africa for less than 200,000 miles.”
The prompt: “Drive 15,000 miles to a beach.”

As with all AI travel planning tools, there are some problems:

  • The tool typically suggests flights to the West Coast of the United States unless you are prompted to enter another location.
  • Sometimes the tool only suggests one location.
  • It reports errors and needs to be updated regularly.
  • The tool does not suggest alternatives to routes that Alaska does not offer.

What's next

Users can earn and redeem points for Alaska through partnerships with Lyft and Avis Budget, but they must manually connect the accounts on different websites. The airline wants to develop an AI-powered tool that allows users to access all Alaska points in one place.

“You could imagine a world where you could earn or redeem Alaska Airlines miles for every phase of your trip, from flights to hotels to cars, perhaps including future excursions,” Bowman said.

Alaska is also developing a more comprehensive trip planning tool with a team of Google engineers that focuses on leveraging multiple technologies. Alaska plans to test this tool later this year to determine which model works best for its needs.

The airline is also working on several other AI projects.

This includes a new internal tool to send personalized emails to customers selling additional products after booking. The company plans to start sending personalized flight recommendations in the next few months, taking into account information such as: B. where a customer usually sits on the plane and what time they would like to fly.

The team is also exploring ways to integrate an AI assistant into the middle of the shopping experience to increase sales rates.

As part of its technology initiatives, Alaska is investing $2.5 billion to modernize passenger technology in airport lobbies. And his venture capital firm invests in startups that want to modernize the transportation industry.

Photo credit: Alaska Airlines is working on several projects that involve generative AI.

Anna Harden

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