Your Thoughts on Airline Big Data: Value or Invasion?

My recent post on Yes, We Want Airlines Profitable, But …, along with a recent Wall Street Journal article How Airlines Mine Personal Data In-Flight got the attention of FoxTV in Orlando.

I will be meeting FoxTV on Monday for a segment on this topic called “Airline Data Mining: Value or Invasion?”

Please share your thoughts on this contentious topic:

  • What is your biggest hope with how airlines can enhance our travel experience with this data?
  • What’s your biggest fear of what they’ll do with this data?


  1. If you look at the history of human civilization, privacy is a novel and short-lived concept. For most of history, humans lived in communities where there essentially was no such thing as the private. Only in the 20th century was the fiction of privacy developed, enabled by the incredible modernization of society and enabling certain kinds of cultural diversity.

    So I’m not particularly worried about “invasion of privacy,” as long as the ends are good.

    Good ends would include using data to better understand how we travel so that they can make dynamic changes to scheduling, gating, boarding processes, etc., to make our lives easier.

    Biggest fear: that they don’t share anonymized data with the rest of the world, so that scientists and creative planners couldn’t improve on their methodologies.

  2. They will know who their business travelers are versus leisure travelers and hike prices for frequent flyers

  3. What I want:
    I hope that airlines can give me a more personalized / more customized experience based on more than just the things offered in my flight profile. I don’t just use a flight to get me from point A to point B, I’m usually doing work (some of my best ideas have come at 35,000 feet) or catching up on sleep.

    Many of my travel decisions are based on the context of my trip, and those things are more subtle than a simple set of rules on a booking engine can determine.

    By this I mean that my preference for an aisle vs. window is different, depending on the flight. On outbound flights, I prefer an aisle as I prefer the extra elbow room as I’m looking through my notes, preparing for the meetings that will happen when I land. But on my return flights, I prefer the window, because I can better decompress after a long meeting (or a long week full of meetings) by looking out the window, resting my head on the side of the plane for a catnap, etc.

    Similarly, I prefer a bulkhead seat on short flights, but on longer flights, or if no one is sitting next to me, I prefer a non-bulkhead because the armrest can flip up out of the way and I have more room to spread out.

    If I have a connecting flight, I want to be in the front of the plane on the first leg so that I can race out the door to make the next flight, but if I don’t have a connection, I’m happy to sit towards the back of the plane to let the people under a tight time schedule to de-plane first.

    What I fear:
    I don’t fear disclosure of personal information by the airlines — we all lost our privacy years ago to credit card companies and internet search engines.
    The only concern that I have is that the airlines might assume something by my buying habits that doesn’t apply to me. I can’t think of a concrete airline example, but a year ago I was looking for a new car, and I did a lot of online research to decide what model I like. Well, it’s a year later, and I’m still getting car-related emails.. I made my purchase last year, but the fact I was searching might forever stain my inbox.

    I hope this helped..

  4. Pat – Thanks for the in-depth response! Yes, I too hope that the airlines use this data on us to provide a more personalized experience though I think it will take awhile to get there. Understanding how to use the data they have the first priority; then all systems need to be created to make this happen.

    You’re correct about the data on us going stale — our preferences and buying habits today may be different in the future so their data collection systems will be challenged in how to keep this fresh.

    Hmmmm… they may start to see that once I hit 1K on United, I switch over to Delta for the rest of the year. Ok, so I don’t want them knowing everything!

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