Selling to a captive audience, at 30,000 feet

Southwest Airlines passenger jet prepares to land at Midway Airport in Chicago, Illinois.

We already know everybody from Google and Facebook to our government is tracking us.  But the airlines have been a little slow to embrace Big Data.  Now The Wall Street Journal reports the airline industry is getting into the tracking business to do a better job of selling us stuff.  

Richard Gritta, an aviation expert at the University of Portland.  He says it was just a matter of time before the airline industry began looking for new ways to make money.

"They’re starting to tap out the obvious things like charging for meals," Gritta said, not to mention luggage and early check-in.

Gritta says the other day he heard a guy complaining that airlines are gonna remove one of the bathrooms to fit in more seats in.

To which, Gritta quipped, "Hey how about taking all the johns and just selling Depends."

The airlines just might  have the data to know where to do that. They’ve already got a lot of info on us and they’re poised to start collecting even more, said Harriet Baskas, who runs the blog Stuck at the Airport.

"It was just announced that people can use their electronic devices the entire flight and airlines that have wi-fi will make very good use of that," said Baskas.

Let’s say Baskas surfs the web while on a flight to Chicago. The airline knows she lives in Seattle so she might get an ad for a rental car, a taxi or a reservation at a popular restaurant at her destination. And Baskas says,  we might see more product hawking in the aisles too. Take the duty free cart, which usually whizzes by.

"They might know that this man has bought gifts before and linger longer there," said Baskas.

Brett Snyder runs the blog Cranky Flier and he says we shouldn’t be too cynical. He says fliers have been complaining that they feel like cattle. A little data mining could change that

"And so if we know it’s your birthday, it’s just a nice thing if a flight attendant says, oh happy birthday, thanks for flying with us," Snyder said.

But an even  better birthday present,  would be a little more leg room.

About the author

Queena Kim covers technology for Marketplace. She lives in the Bay Area.

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