Alaska Airlines Tests AI for Loyalty and Flight Search

Skift Take

Though the new Alaska Airlines AI flight search tool has issues, it’s an early glimpse at how the future of airline loyalty tech and search could look.

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

The tool allows users to ask for suggested flight destinations based on general topics of interest, 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 purchase with specific amounts of loyalty points. 

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

It’s an early step toward a long-term goal of helping travelers with more than just shopping for specific flights, according to Natalie Bowman, managing director of product and digital experiences for Alaska Airlines.

“A travel experience that focuses more on your end-to-end travel journey is where we want to go. For us, it’s really putting our loyalty program at the core of it because we have so many partners where you can earn miles or redeem miles,” Bowman said. “We think AI could be a huge enabler of a really cool experience there.”

The tool also incorporates the network for 30 airline partners that fly to destinations worldwide, which Alaska has been building over the past year. 

“There’s not great visibility to that yet, and so this is a huge opportunity to show people that … they could come to Alaska to book global travel,” Bowman said. “And I think to do that, we need to get this in the hands of more people that are not already naturally coming to Alaska Airlines, and so that will be a big opportunity for us to use this to lure in new audiences.” 

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

Alaska provided Skift with a link to the tool’s webpage so that readers can try it out. 

How It Works

One of Alaska’s engineers quickly designed the tool as a side project using software building tech from Microsoft and generative AI from OpenAI.

“What we realized is what he generated was delightfully simple,” Bowman said. “It was all we needed to have; it didn’t need a ton of complexity.”

The user can ask for flight suggestions based with a general prompt, such as, “Take my family to a beach with whales this summer.” It’s meant to respond with flight options for several destinations, and each result is paired with a short description about why it’s included.

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

Users can ask to view flights that they can purchase for a certain amount of points. The response includes how much the cost would be after spending the specified number of points.

“This is a pain point 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 to that very quickly.”

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The prompt: “Trip to Africa for under 200,000 miles.”
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The prompt: “Travel to a beach for 15,000 miles.”

Like all AI trip planning tools, there are some issues:

  • The tool tends to suggest flights to the West Coast of the U.S. unless prompted for another location.
  • Sometimes the tool only suggests one location.
  • It reports errors and needs to refresh somewhat frequently.
  • The tool doesn’t suggest alternatives to routes that Alaska doesn’t offer.

What’s Next

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

“You could envision a world where you could earn or redeem Alaska Airlines miles for every phase of your trip, from flight to hotel to car, maybe excursions in the future,” Bowman said.

Alaska is also building a broader trip planning tool with a team of Google engineers, focused on leveraging multiple technologies. Alaska plans to test that tool later this year to see which model works best for its needs. 

The airline is working on several other AI projects, as well. 

That includes a new internal tool for sending personalized emails to customers post-booking to sell ancillary products. The company in the next couple of months plans to start sending personalized flight recommendations, taking into account information such as where a customer tends to sit on a plane and what time they like to fly. 

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

Among its tech initiatives, Alaska is investing $2.5 billion to upgrade passenger technology in airport lobbies. And its venture capital firm is investing in startups aiming to modernize the transportation industry.

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