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2019-10-22 23:27:31

JetBlue Technology Ventures, the airline's VC arm, has made investments in 20 startups in the three years since its inception. The airline is hoping these new technologies can help minimize delays and find more efficient scheduling, its leader said at Business Insider's IGNITION conference in San Francisco on Tuesday. Bonny Simi, who chairs the unit following stints in the Olympics and as a pilot, also revealed that there's one area even JetBlue is having trouble breaking into. Click here for more BI Prime stories. 

Flying can be a headache.

JetBlue, in keeping with its mission to bring humanity back to travel has committed millions of dollars in venture investments to help modernize the industry.

On stage at Business Insider's IGNITION: Transportation conference in San Francisco on Tuesday, Bonny Simi, head of JetBlue Technology Ventures, outlined some of the areas of focus for her investment team. Chief among them, making the traveling experience delightful again.

Here in Silicon Valley, the word disruption is a good thing, she said. But if you're a traveler, disruption is not a good thing.

In the same way that small delays can cascade through an airlines' schedule and wreak havoc on hundreds of flights and thousands of passengers' itineraries, so too can small efficiencies — even mere minutes — help the entire airline stay on time.

One example of a JetBlue investment that's paying off is Lumo, Simi said, which is helping the company build better schedules with insights humans could never find on their own.

They're an AI company out of MIT, she said, and they pull in all of the data from Air Traffic Control, and weather, actual flights, and they help us build better schedules. If we move a departure by three minutes, that might actually save a delay of three hours because of some ground delay program that always happens at a certain time at a certain airport.

While that's easy to do as you're managing a fleet of only 50 airplanes, she continued, but as you've got 200, 300, 400 aircraft, thousands of flights a day, humans can't do that.

Since 2016, when the airline first got into the Silicon Valley game, it's made investments in 20 companies, with sizes ranging from $250,000 to $1 million.

Read more: The president of JetBlue's venture capital firm is a renaissance woman who just might transform air travel

But it hasn't all been without controversy. While pioneering facial recognition for international flights at JetBlue's New York hub, the airline faced some backlash amid privacy concerns. That's not slowing down JetBlue's customer-side investments, which can speed up boarding.

The reality is if you're travelling internationally, Simi said, you've got a passport. The government already has your picture. If you fly internationally on JetBlue, you can go straight through the boarding process without even pulling out your ticket.

Of course, you can opt out, she continued. But if you choose, your picture bounces right off the government database, we don't hold the data whatsoever. Then you board the flight without pulling out your ticket or any additional identification.

Weather remains an airline foe

Weather, of course, is the crux of most airline delays, and the issue right in Simi's crosshairs with another investment in a company called ClimateCell.

The so-called microweather company takes the signals from cell towers and cars, Simi said, and can sense the weather right now on a street level. Whatever the weather is on Embarcadero and Market versus down at San Francisco Airport is going to be very different. But if you open up your weather app, it's just going to say San Francisco.

That granularity can be crucial.

That allows us to run better ramp operations, Simi said. When is the lightning going to come? When do we need to roll the de-icing trucks?  When we have much more precise weather it makes a much more seamless journey for you.

There's one area that even JetBlue is struggling to break into

Pilots have landed planes somewhat autonomously for decades with a function known as auto-land.

I landed a 747 at SFO in zero visibility 20 years ago, Simi said. But those systems are limited to certain airports and specific aircraft. Expanding that, she says, could be a game-changer.

There is a company we haven't invested in, but I keep trying to invest, she said. They're stealth so I can't say exactly what they are, but if we think about all of these robotics, it's only at specific airports. If you could do those auto-lands at any airport, because of a self-contained piece of technology, that completely reduces the disruptions that you have for weather.

There is a startup that's doing that here in the Bay Area, Simi concluded. We see that positively impacting the industry ahead. I hope they're watching, because I want to invest in them.


businessinsider.com Graham Rapier
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