Airlines have your personal data, and they are using it

  • Nation
  • Sunday, 26 Nov 2017

AIRLINES are really good at some things – like people movement and aircraft maintenance. They’re also experts at collecting vast mountains of customer data, including what sort of credit cards and computers you use, how often you fly, and where and how much you spend on all the extras.

If you’re stressing over a tight connection, flight attendants can usually tell you which gate to run to and how much time you have. They may also know if you were delayed for six hours last week, and offer a personal apology. They can even tap their data hoard to upgrade someone on standby who got stuck in economy because she or he usually flies first class.

The swankiest hotels have long employed this strategy: If you feel special and loved, maybe you’ll come back. Now the airlines have jumped on the bandwagon.

“We have enough data about who you are, where you fly, and more importantly, when we’ve delayed you, cancelled you, made you change your seat, spilled coffee on you – we have the points of failure and the points of success,” said Oscar Munoz, chief executive of United Continental Holdings Inc. “I think our customers need better service and better personalisation today. And that’s what we’re focusing on.”

But as they probe these new capabilities, some carriers are confronting a nettlesome question: How much personal data can be used to enhance customer service before slipping into the “too much information” realm, where a traveller may feel uncomfortable?

In April, Delta Airlines’ 23,000 flight attendants began using new software called SkyPro on their mobile devices which colour-coded each seat – a green thumbs-up for passengers Delta wants to thank or congratulate, a red check to apologise for a recent service mishap.

But Delta is also exploring where the creepy factor lies in all this customer insight. For example, should a flight attendant wish you a happy birthday? And should flight attendants’ notes be distributed company wide? Right now, they’re not, but what has begun as making use of information they had anyway could soon become a targeted accumulation of data on your travel persona.

Do we want to feel like we’re under the microscope every time we fly? Will we order that second drink? Even watch a racy movie? “It’s a feel-good thing, but it’s also in the mind of the consumer, ‘If they know my birthday, what else do they know about me?’” said John Romantic, American Airline’s managing director of flight service.

Delta is hardly alone when it comes to using its customer intelligence, with every big international airline exploring how to tailor its approach more specifically.

Flight attendants at British Airways have used iPads since 2011. The airline developed more than 40 apps for various customer service aspects of a journey, including those that allow cabin staff to recognise “high-tier customers” and note “troubles” – such as when a specific meal order wasn’t delivered.

Two years ago, Singapore Airlines cabin crews began using tablets to customise their service and to create digital “voyage reports” after each flight.

In this service landscape, many airlines will also grapple with how widely to distribute this kind of digital interaction. Is it wiser to focus on the “high-value” customers in premium cabins or include the entire airplane? Flight attendant time, after all, is a very finite resource.

“We don’t think it’s either-or,” said Dave O’Flanagan, chief executive of Dublin-based Boxever Ltd., which sells customer service software and services for the travel industry. “Throughout the cabin there are pockets of next-generation business travellers who are going to be high spenders.” — Bloomberg

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