Airlines Use Digital Technology to Get Even More Personal

LONDON — As the door of his limousine opened outside Virgin Atlantic’sbusiness class lounge
at Heathrow Airport one recent afternoon, Declan Jones was startled to be greeted b more than
!ust a smiling face"
#enneth $harles, a Virgin customer ser%ice agent, pic&ed up 'r" Jones’s suitcase and peered at
him through a (oogle (lass headset, which had been informed of 'r" Jones’s arri%al b the dri%er
of the limo, a pic&up ser%ice pro%ided b the airline to its most)%alued customers"
*ithout brea&ing ee contact with his guest, 'r" $harles consulted the %irtual realit glasses to
%erif the details of 'r" Jones’s flight to Newar&, N"J" He also confirmed the other data Virgin had
on file for 'r" Jones, including his passport information, fre+uent flier status and whether he had
completed the necessar customs and immigration formalities for tra%el from London to the ,nited
.-poo&,/ said 'r" Jones, a 01)ear)old pharmaceuticals e2ecuti%e from Hertfordshire, north of
London, before slipping into the lounge’s clubhouse"
Virgin Atlantic’s use of (oogle (lass headsets, as well as -on smart watches worn b its
Heathrow lounge staff, are part of a si2)wee& e2periment that began last month, and are among
was that some airlines are harnessing data about premium)class tra%elers in a +uest to pro%ide an
e%er more personal ser%ice" 34%en if some of the techni+ues stri&e tra%elers as perhaps o%erl
At a time when man airline .inno%ations/ — li&e charging e2tra for an aisle seat or cutting bac&
on fre+uent flier benefits — might anger more than ama6e, analsts sa that efforts b carriers to
associate their brands with the latest in digital wi6ardr ha%e the potential to generate a positi%e
bu66 among customers and allow them to compile %aluable information about passenger beha%iors
and preferences"
.7t’s %er high on the agenda of a lot of airlines, because technolog is often a prett low)cost wa
to impro%e ser%ice,/ said 8amond #ollau, an analst and founder of Airlinetrends"com,
a research firm in Haarlem, the Netherlands"
9ut some e2perts sa carriers should proceed with caution"
.,sing technolog to position itself as a forward)thin&ing airline can ha%e a positi%e impact on
preference/ among fliers, said Henr H" Harte%eldt, a tra%el industr analst in -an :rancisco for
Hudson $rossing, a consulting firm" .9ut there is a %er fine line between cool and creep"/
One airline sstem that del%es e%en more deepl into business tra%elers’ data was rolled out late
last ear b the Australian carrier ;antas Airwas" 7t enables ;antas to monitor, in real time,
social)media con%ersations ta&ing place within its airport lounges"
<he tool can pic& up all the <witter, Lin&ed7n, 7nstagram or =interest posts of an lounge guests
who ha%e enabled geolocation ser%ices on their mobile de%ices, whether the are using the
airport’s *i):i networ& or their own ser%ice pro%ider" <he sstem also captures the content of
users who ha%e .chec&ed in/ to the lounge %ia sites li&e :ours+uare or who ha%e acti%ated the
.places/ function on :aceboo&"
;antas’s lounge staff members ha%e been e+uipped with i=ads that recei%e an alert whene%er a
user posts content from that location" <he airline uses the sstem in all its premium lounges in
Australia, as well as in se%eral others around the world, including -ingapore, Los Angeles,
#enned Airport in New >or&, London Heathrow and Dubai"
8ohan #issun, ?@, who flies twice a wee& with ;antas, said he often used his downtime in the
airline’s lounge to browse and update his social mediaaccounts on his mobile de%ices" Although he
is tech sa%% — he wor&s for an 7nternet securit firm — he was unaware of ;antas’s monitoring
sstem until a reporter told him about it" -o he had no clue of what was about to happen one
morning last month when he was in the ;antas business lounge at -dne Airport"
Noticing Australia’s former prime minister, John Howard, at the buffet, 'r" #issun as&ed to ta&e a
picture with him on his smartphone, which 'r" #issun then posted to his 7nstagram account with
the commentA .Not normall a selfie ta&er B but couldn’t resist with our former =' this
-hortl thereafter, 'r" #issun noticed that someone at ;antas had seen and .li&ed/ the image,
sharing it with the airline’s more than CD,@@@ 7nstagram followers"
.7 was +uite ta&en abac&,/ 'r" #issun said" .7 would not ha%e thought that photo could ha%e
attracted an attention from them"/
'r" #issun said that he would prefer ;antas to be more transparent with customers" Now that he is
aware of the practice, he said, .7 would be more inclined to calm down about what 7’m uploading"/
Jo 9ound, the head of digital communication at ;antas, said the airline each month was capturing
about E,@@@ location)tagged :aceboo& posts and around ?@,@@@ tweets and 7nstagram updates" 9ut
she dismissed the suggestion that some passengers might find the practice o%erl intrusi%e, arguing
that social media was b definition a public medium"
.=eople are putting these comments out there for the world for see,/ 's" 9ound said" -he noted
that its sstem could not access posts on a closed :aceboo& page, for e2ample" .*e can onl see
things that are alread out in the public domain"/
7n an case, a recent demonstration of the technolog that ;antas conducted for <he New >or&
<imes re%ealed %arious content that users might not normall want to share with their airline" One
post bemoaned a pre%ious night’s o%erindulgenceF another criti+ued the appearance of a group of
fellow passengers, accompanied b an unflattering photo"
.7t is a little disconcerting to me that ;antas could be monitoring anbod’s <witter stream when
it doesn’t pertain to the airline,/ 'r" Harte%eldt, the analst, said" .<here is a challenge here for
an business to understand where does the in%ol%ement and engagement begin and where does it
Virgin Atlantic and ;antas are not alone in using technolog to tr to get closer to their customers"
<wo ears ago, 9ritish Airwas e+uipped more than C,@@@ flight attendants with i=ads containing
the itineraries of premium)class passengers, complaint histories, meal preferences and e%en a
(oogle 7mage search function to help them identif an V"7"=" aboard" Despite an outcr from
pri%ac groups, the airline said the sstem — called #now 'e — is still in use and complies with
9ritish data protection laws because it uses information that passengers ha%e alread pro%ided to
the airline or that is alread in the public domain"
7n the ,nited -tates, American Airlines has +uietl begun a trial of 9luetooth)enabled beacons in
fi%e ma!or airports, including at La (uardia in New >or&, that can trac& and send messages to the
de%ices of passengers who ha%e downloaded one of the airline’s mobile applications" <he airline
has billed the sstem as one that can, for e2ample, guide waward passengers to the appropriate
gate or prod a straggler who has not et cleared securit" 7t is also considering using the app to
promote seat upgrades or other offers once a tra%eler arri%es in the boarding area"
Virgin Atlantic, for its part, seems intent on building upon its reputation as a tech trendsetter" <he
9ritish airline, !ointl owned b 8ichard 9ranson’s Virgin (roup and b Delta Air Lines, was
among the first to switch from o%erhead to seat)bac& %ideo screens in the GH1@s" 7ts sister carrier
Virgin America installed in)flight *i):i across its fleet in C@@H, ears ahead of man other
-o as Virgin Atlantic sees it, the mo%e to e+uip lounge staff with wearable de%ices that ha%e access
to passengers’ data is another wa to ma&e its brand digitall distincti%e" <he bac&)end software
that pushes Virgin’s passenger data to the (oogle (lass headsets and the -on smart watches was
de%eloped b a -wiss airline technolog compan called -7<A, which said it was an (oogle)
authori6ed .e2plorer/ of (oogle (lass but that (oogle itself was not in%ol%ed in the pro!ect and
would recei%e none of the passenger data"
'r" $harles, the Virgin customer ser%ice agent, conceded that some passengers .do a bit of a
double ta&e/ when confronted with his futuristic headgear" .One man said I(reat, 7’m being
greeted b a cborg"J /
Hani Abouhal&a, a passenger who was chec&ing in for the same recent Heathrow)to)Newar& flight
as 'r" Jones, was intrigued"
.7’%e read a lot about (oogle (lass, but this is the first time 7’%e e%er seen it,/ he said" 'r"
Abouhal&a, ?E, who wor&s for a health care compan in London, wondered aloud if the headset
could determine whether an window seats were still a%ailable 3it could5 and if, when %iewed
through the de%ice, he loo&ed anthing li&e (eorge $loone 3he did not5"
<im (raham, Virgin Atlantic’s head of technolog inno%ation, said that, for now, the (oogle
(lass’s headset camera and %ideo recording functions had been disabled in a nod to tra%eler
pri%ac" 9ut he said that Virgin was not generall concerned about alienating its passengers b
using the technolog"
.'abe some people thin& it is a bit 9ig 9rotherish, but 7 thin& more people are curious than
scared b it,/ he said" .*e are tring to get across that it is about using the information we alread
hold about them in a smarter wa to get them through the process +uic&er"/
Analsts, though, sa the tra%el industr must be increasingl sensiti%e to the public’s wariness
about technologies that capture and share data, particularl in the wa&e of recent re%elations about
digital snooping b go%ernments"
'r" #ollau, the Airlinetrends"com analst, said that airlines would be wise to be clear with
passengers about what the are doing" .7t has to be full transparent,/ he said" .9ecause if there is
an doubt, then people will be suspicious — and rightl so"/