Global Observer

Hello, stranger: airline uses Facebook profiles to pair seatmates

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HONG KONG -- Who would you want to be sitting next to at 30,000 feet? Customers increasingly have a say.

HONG KONG — Your assigned seatmate at 30,000 feet is largely luck of the draw. But that luck factor is diminishing.

Several weeks ago, Air Baltic introduced SeatBuddy, which uses passengers’ Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter profiles to match them in their seat assignments.

Instead of choosing a seat on a seating chart, passengers may opt to let the airline assign a seat based on preferences. They would select one of four “moods” — business talk, easy chat, work or relax — and answer a few yes-or-no questions, and then link up their social networking profiles. The SeatBuddy program then matches flyers using their selections.

But the product’s purpose is not just to give passengers a better flying experience. It also collects nuanced customer information for the airline, which could be used to tailor marketing communication like email newsletters to individual interests, said Sergio Mello, co-founder of the Hong Kong-based Satisfly that created SeatBuddy.

“We take a lot of big data — that’s a new keyword of 2012 — and we make marketing actionable information out of it,” said Mello, who is trying to sell the seat-assignment product to airlines across the globe. “So what an airline gets out of our software is understanding their customers from a new perspective.”

The use of SeatBuddy follows Dutch airline KLM’s February launch of Meet and Seat, with which passengers can upload their social media accounts, view others’ profiles and choose whom they want to sit next to.

Malaysia Airlines’ MHBuddy service allows passengers to see if any of their Facebook friends are on the same flight, so that they might sit together, or land in the destination around the same time.

Mello dismisses the notion that SeatBuddy has competitors. He said Satisfly offers the only service that can garner enough profiles per flight to make the seat assignment useful.

It took Satisfly a few years to get Air Baltic onboard as its first customer. It has been difficult to talk to airlines, which Mello describes as “followers” that had their last innovation three decades ago with the invention of frequent-flyer programs. He said he has also had to convince airlines that Facebook was not just a passing fad.

“Airlines take marketing and digital marketing with the same approach as they take safety — so no risk. And of course we all know that when we talk about digital marketing, it’s all about trying, risking, getting things wrong, fixing them and having a good product,” he said.

But would some flyers feel nostalgic for the suspense of the randomized seatmate assignment? And your airline not knowing your hobbies and your high school?

As Mello tells it, it’s all a matter of the “creepiness-to-benefit ratio.”

“As long as customers are well informed of what we do with their data and who we give it to, and as long as they understand the benefits that come back, I don’t see a problem with it,” he said.

Photo: Daniel Schwen

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Vanessa Ko

Correspondent (Hong Kong)

Vanessa Ko has written for TIME, South China Morning Post and Phnom Penh Post. She holds degrees from Northwestern University and the University of Hong Kong. She is based in Hong Kong, China. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure