Sometimes it seems as though airlines look to make travelers miserable. But a business practice that has become common is leaving the carriers worried that they could push customers over the edge.

Wait, what? As if middle seats, lack of food, delays, and getting kicked off a plane due to overbooking weren't enough.

The practice in question is big data: Using everything you can gather directly or through third parties to provide better service. That generally means anticipation of what someone thinks people will want based on statistical profiles and specific information on individuals.

The amount of information that airlines have is significant. If you frequent one, they see your travel patterns. They know your birthday and home zip code, which can be more revealing than you might realize with commercially available location-based psychographics. If you're willing to spend extra for additional legroom, they know. Your flight histories will tell whether you're a regular business flyer or someone off on vacation.

Many companies would love this amount of information, but, as Scott McCartney at the Wall Street Journal recently noted, having a flight attendant wishing you a happy birthday after checking a handheld device could be a creepy experience.

That's an expression of emotional intelligence. Look at the tech industry. How many companies have left consumers unpleasant surprised when they find themselves pursued by ads for some product they searched for online. Look at the ill-will Facebook has seen over privacy issues, including wanted to be the dating site of choice for people after a history of questionable data practices.

The latest Facebook debacle: a leak of data on 120 million users.

Then there's the issue of major wireless carriers tracking the location of customers, including you, and sharing it with third parties.

And all that is recent, without taking past privacy issues, like Google's history of privacy controversies, into account. The tech industry has single-handedly created a world of wary skeptics.

That airlines are nervous about privacy issues shows that, despite their many faults, managers aren't utterly disconnected from reality.

One reason this gets tricky, as McCarthy notes, is that the airlines have become stingy about upgrades. How, they want to know, do you reward people, only on the cheap?

That conflict between what they want to achieve and the potential blowback is what has the airlines worried. Here's an example from the WSJ piece:

United rolled out a new app to its flight attendants earlier this year with so much information about people, the airline has been reluctant to turn on all the functionality. The tool can show flight attendants information on each frequent flier's five previous flights--green if it was a good flight, yellow or red if something went wrong, like a delay. But United is worried some customers might consider that stalking.
"There's a point where you don't want to make people feel like, 'Gee they know everything about me and they're tracking everything I do,'" says John Slater, United's senior vice president of inflight services.

It's not like when you were a regular at a restaurant or store and owners and staff came to know you over time. The information today appears on a screen and is completely one-sided. You don't have a sense of knowing the other person in return, which creates the stalker-ish impression. It's utterly artificial.

For anyone who is old enough to remember the old Andy Griffith show, there was an episode in which a stranger comes to town and starts addressing everyone by name and assumes a level of familiarity that is disturbing. It eventually becomes apparent that the stranger was friends with someone from the town who made it sound so appealing that he wanted to be from there. All turns out well in the end. But real life isn't that neat, and the familiarity in this case remains unexplained and artificial.

Customer status -- based on number of flights and amount they pay for them -- and other data appear on the handheld devices attendants use to place orders for food and drinks. The higher the status, the more attention someone is likely to receive.

Except that offers another problem: correctly perceived favoritism. On one hand, of course a business will show more favor to people who are more loyal. That is fine when people don't see the disparities. It is off-putting when it's too obvious. Joe sees Juanita get preferential treatment -- and has no way of recognizing the additional spending it took to get it. A company now has a potential customer relations problem. It may not blow up that time but multiply it over millions and millions of flights a year. Then amplify the issue over social media.

A freaking disaster in the making.

So, yup, airlines are wary. If your business has access to deep customer information, you should be wary before using it yourself. Find ways to introduce it naturally or see if -- what a concept -- you and your staff can actually come to know people. Granted, that may be tough over multiple locations. But if done badly, the upshot of computers "knowing" the customer can make for worse business and relationships rather than better.

Published on: Jun 29, 2018