Airlines have lots of personal data, and they’re using it

Airlines have lots of personal data, and they’re using it

(Bloomberg) — Airlines are really good at some things — like people movement, aircraft maintenance, and keeping passengers safe. They’re also experts at collecting vast mountains of customer data, including what sorts 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 toward, how much time you have, and whether your next flight is on time. But they may also know if you were stuck in Buffalo for six hours last week because of a delay, and offer a personal apology. They can even tap their data hoard to make sure there’s plenty of red for the 2 million-miler who drinks only cabernet, or upgrade the woman on standby who got stuck in economy because she 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.

The industry has long envisioned a day when it could make use of all the information it’s accumulated on you. That data has traditionally been segregated in various IT systems, but now many airlines are gradually funneling it into a customer service strategy — with flight attendants becoming the face of hyper-personalized service.

“We have enough data about who you are, where you fly, and more importantly, over the last period of time when we’ve delayed you, canceled you, made you change your seat, spilled coffee on you — we have the points of failure and the points of success,” Oscar Munoz, chief executive of United Continental Holdings Inc., said Nov. 9 at a conference sponsored by the New York Times. “I think our customers need better service and better personalization today. And that’s what we’re focusing on.”

“If they know my birthday, what else do they know about me?”

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 traveler may feel uncomfortable?

In April, Delta Air Lines Inc.’s 23,000 flight attendants began using new software called SkyPro on their Nokia Lumia mobile devices to keep tabs on some basic customer information. You’ll get an apology if your flight last week was delayed, for example. Or a thank you if you just hit 200,000 miles for the year. Or, say, a flight attendant spills some coffee on your skirt: The tools will allow him to award you some frequent flier miles or a future travel voucher on the spot.

On the Nokia devices, each seat of a flight is color-coded. A green thumbs-up for passengers Delta wants to thank or congratulate, a red check if the airline wants to apologize for a recent service mishap.

American Airlines Group Inc., the world’s largest carrier, equips its 24,000 flight attendants with Samsung Galaxy Note devices. Early next year, American will release a new app called iSolve to let flight attendants dispense frequent-flier miles or a travel voucher to help resolve customer service issues onboard. United’s flight attendants also track tight connections, mileage milestones and other customer matters with company-issued iPhones.

“We want to stay one step ahead of them, if you will, by using our big data when things go wrong or when things are going great,” said Allison Ausband, Delta’s senior vice president of in-flight service.

Like other carriers debating how to employ “big data” through new digital tools, Delta is exploring where the creepy factor lies in all this customer insight.

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