Business / Companies

Avatar off to flying start with China Eastern's passengers

By WANG YING (China Daily) Updated: 2015-01-14 07:19

The in-flight experience is set to get more interesting as artificial intelligence functions are added to the cabin.

An avatar named Donghang Xiao Ice (China Eastern little ice) took its virtual maiden flight with China Eastern Corp Ltd's MU5117 service from Shanghai to Beijing on Tuesday afternoon. The avatar's task was to revolutionize onboard social communication.

About 95 passengers were invited to test the avatar's services, using Microsoft Corp-designed functions to communicate with it, as well as with the cabin crew and other passengers.

What flyers said that they liked best was that they could use the in-flight Wi-Fi, via their tablets, to communicate with other passengers, even if they were complete strangers. The note-passing function is based on designating the seat number of the flight on the Weibo micro-blog service.

Passengers could also get real-time flight information and order in-flight services such as food, drinks or blankets, before boarding.

Xiao Ice also allows passengers to summon cabin crew and communicate with people on the ground.

China Eastern, which has an annual passenger volume of up to 100 million, aims to expand the service. Xiao Ice is seen as just the beginning of the collaboration between China Eastern and Microsoft, which plan to develop more in-flight communication functions.

"We hope to give passengers a lot more fun during their flights," said Wei Zhilin, chief executive officer of China Eastern Airlines E-Business Co Ltd.

According to Wei, apart from the existing five aircraft with in-flight Wi-Fi facilities, the Shanghai-based carrier plans to provide Wi-Fi on the rest of its 70-plus wide-body jets within the next two years, meaning passengers will be able to enjoy the service on the carrier's long-haul flights in the near future.

Kenny Chien, director of engineering with Microsoft STC Asia, said that Xiao Ice represents the use of artificial intelligence and big data, and such services will be further integrated into daily life. That will mean more business opportunities for aviation-related industries such as ground traffic, hotels and Internet tourism, he said.

China Eastern has provided in-flight Wi-Fi between Shanghai and Beijing om July to selected passengers, who can surf the Internet, use interactive apps such as micro blogs and WeChat, and watch video clips once the flight reaches an altitude of 3,048 meters.

Shanghai-based budget carrier Spring Airlines Co Ltd has also taken note of social media trends and launched "dating flights" between Shanghai and Thailand. That service is based on a Chinese television dating program.

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