International Airlines Group (IAG), whose member airlines include British Airways, Iberia, Aer Lingus, Vueling and LEVEL, is on an impressive transformation journey – not only of its own operations, but also how our industry operates. IAG recently invited Future Travel Experience to its Waterside HQ near Heathrow. Pulling out all the stops, over the course of a few hours, IAG rolled out several key division heads and pioneering figures to share a comprehensive briefing on its innovation activities. We learned how IAG – a Corporate Partner of the FTE Digital, Innovation & Startup Hub – will be collaborating with its airport partners on a wide range of trials, covering robotics & automation, AI & Machine Learning, biometrics & digital identity, personalisation, collaboration with startups, sustainability, private networks & IoT, and much more across the ramp, lounges and accessibility.
IAG Airports enables transformative synergies across IAG’s airlines and cargo businesses. The scale of its ambition was immediately clear on our visit, where we received a fascinating deep-dive showcase of innovation across the organisation and the work IAG is doing with a number of airport partners and suppliers. In addition to meeting many top IAG executives driving pioneering innovation and collaboration efforts, we even had a live virtual demo of some very cool tech at Torino Airport to support accessibility ambitions.
A fully automated airport experience
Gurm Nijjer, Senior Vice President of Americas, shared a fascinating insight into IAG’s vision to enable a fully automated airport experience. This vision sees customers empowered via their mobile device to create a seamless experience, as well as fully automated below-wing operations utilising automation & robotics. Artificial Intelligence is the key enabler on the pathway to this vision and Gurm Nijjer explained that IAG is working with a coalition of airports and looking to grow.
Hangar 51: “continuously pushing the boundaries of the travel industry with emerging technologies”
Hangar 51 is the innovation team at IAG, helping test and scale high-impact emerging technologies across the group. Jose Serrano, Innovation Principal, shared that the mission is “to drive innovation within IAG and continuously push the boundaries of the travel industry with emerging technologies and new approaches to travel, supporting startups and scaleups that have the potential to transform our industry.”
The programme has grown considerably over the years, with successful post-accelerator implementations and investments. Serrano outlined some impressive figures, including seven programmes over the last eight years, 3,000+ applications received, 220+ pitches evaluated, 75+ participants, and a 60% post-accelerator commercialisation rate. “In 2024, Hangar 51 will focus on redefining innovation, leading transformation and sustainability initiatives, and fostering an innovation community,” Serrano added.
Exploring exciting new solutions with the robotics and tech community
Robotics and automation were a key theme explored in our briefing and are a big focus area for IAG. Greg Paton, VP Airports’ Automation, IAG Airports, and David Keene, CEO of Aurrigo, shared details of a strategic partnership signed in October 2023. A Proof of Concept for the Auto-DollyTug autonomous baggage tractor has previously taken place at Heathrow Terminal 5 back in 2019, and it was recently announced that IAG and Aurrigo have commenced deployment and demonstration of the Auto-DollyTug at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport (CVG). “We see this as a key part of the work we are doing not only in the UK but globally and are looking at how we can follow-up with deployments of this technology,” Paton explained. “We evaluated multiple suppliers in this space and while there are a lot of robust solutions, we felt none were disruptive enough or have the management of ULDs, which is a key part of what we’re doing. Aurrigo worked closely with us, supporting us and developing the solution to our requirements.”
Another area in which automation has the potential to transform the passenger experience is autonomous wheelchairs. IAG is in conversations with multiple airport groups and partners, such as CVG, LGW, LHR, PIT and FCO, about implementing the technology to enhance the traveller journey. Our briefing included a fantastic live demonstration from Turin – the ‘Italian Capital of Robotics’ – with ALBA Robot showcasing its B2B self-driving mobility platform at Torino Airport. ALBA Robot’s Andrea Bertaia, CEO & Co-founder, and Mario Brossa, Chief Operating Officer, explained that the autonomous platform, which incorporates an AI personal assistant, has undergone two years of development and testing at Torino Airport, with British Airways to start trials in London and with handler Prospect Airport Services in the U.S.
The FTE Aviation & Robotics Summit, hosted by Pittsburgh International Airport (PIT), takes place in the ‘Robotics Capital of the World’ on 14-16 May 2024. Ahead of the inaugural Aviation & Robotics Summit last year, IAG and PIT launched an innovation partnership. “We are committed to driving innovation and working with like-minded airports and suppliers to drive change within our industry, for the benefit of customers,” said Thomas Cannell, Programme Director – Airports Automation, IAG. “We look forward to working with the PIT team to explore exciting new solutions with the robotics and tech community.”
Briefing FTE live from Pittsburgh, Cole Wolfson, Director, xBridge, PIT, shared how PIT is collaborating with IAG to test and deploy new technologies to drive strategic innovation in five different categories: passenger experience, employee experience, partner experience, sustainability, and safety & security. Current collaboration with IAG encompasses autonomous wheelchairs; camera-based, AI-enabled event detection; above-wing data and autonomous service solutions; and below-wing data and ground servicing solutions. “It is great working with IAG, as they have clearly identified the things they’re trying to do in a more innovative way,” said Wolfson. “Between them, and their very focused view on developing better services and efficiencies, and the xBridge team, we’ve found an interesting and unique way of working.”
IAG Airports also shared some insights into the 95+ projects they and IAG’s airlines are currently working on to deliver the vision of a fully enabled autonomous operation including: Auto Stand Entry Guidance, Autonomous Jet Bridges, Auto FOD Detection, Autonomous Chocks and Cones, Automated Exterior Aircraft Washing, Autonomous Drone Technology, Autonomous Shuttle Buses, AI Computer Vision Technology and Digital Twin Analytics.
Artificial Intelligence: “increase productivity, transform customer experience, streamline operations”
IAG also has exciting plans to transform the lounge experience through automation, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and robotics. Rich data enabled through vision AI tools can be used to facilitate more balanced use of lounges based on capacity. Meanwhile, using a Digital Twin connects all data points to visualise, automate and support management of operations and experience. For example, the British Airways lounge at Boston Logan International Airport has deployed a robot for cleaning.
The overarching technology underpinning IAG’s innovation efforts is AI and its efforts in this space are undoubtedly among the most impressive FTE has seen. The recently-created IAG.ai has received significant investment, with a lab in London and plans to open another in Barcelona, as well as further locations to accelerate innovation. Barry Young, Head of AI for the Group, leads the IAG.ai team. He told FTE that “AI is no longer a distant dream – it’s the future of aviation.”
Among IAG.ai’s developments are an internal generative AI, which has already been rolled out to 50 innovators and produced visible productivity gains. IAG is also part of the Microsoft 365 Early Access Program, trialling generative AI across Microsoft 365 platforms. “Our mission is to become an industry leader in responsible AI to increase productivity, transform customer experience, streamline operations and remove manual toil,” Young explained.
It is clear that IAG is on a very exciting journey and has AI, startups and collaboration right at the top of its agenda. Future Travel Experience firmly believes that we will advance much faster as a sector if we move together, and IAG’s collaborative approach is at the heart of its efforts to drive pioneering innovation.
IAG becomes a Corporate Partner of FTE Digital, Innovation & Startup Hub
International Airlines Group (IAG) has joined the FTE Digital, Innovation & Startup Hub as a Corporate Partner. The FTE Hub was recently relaunched with a new line-up of pioneering industry Captains, a digital-centric, community-focused approach, a new pricing model to make it accessible to all, and a dedicated focus on AI, Robotics & IoT for 2024.
It is a truly unique community designed specifically for the individuals and organisations who are at the forefront of digital transformation and innovation in the aviation industry. Corporate Partners – including many of the industry’s most forward-thinking airlines, airports and vendors – connect on a regular basis throughout the year and the FTE Hub is where meaningful relationships are forged, and learnings, ideas and case studies are continually shared.
It is a one-of-a-kind community where members can openly share their expertise and experiences, discover new partners and inspiration from outside of the sector, explore opportunities to collaborate, and deliver positive change. Corporate Partners also have access to hundreds of approved startup members, each of which has products and services specifically designed to help advance the air transport industry.
Find out more about the FTE Digital, Innovation & Startup Hub >>