British Airways New “Know Me” Program Digs Up Personal Info on Frequent Flyers

Imagine you’ve been sitting in an international hub waiting for your flight to arrive. Boarding calls go out, your section is called, and you join the line and file to board your plane. As you step into the airplane, your cheery flight attendant greets you—by your full name. You’ve never met them, but they at least seem to know you well enough. They sincerely wish that you have a nice flight and move on to the next person, whom they also address by name.

It almost sounds like something ripped from a bad “Cheers” plot, but it’s no joke: British Airways plans on being the first airline “where everybody knows your name.”  The newly-announced “Know Me” program arms roughly 2,000 flight crew members with iPads designed to serve up information about frequent flyers. This new tech “enables the British Airways team to search Google Images for a photo of specific customers […] and proactively approach them,” says a British Airways spokesperson. The airline estimates that by the end of 2012, staff will be able to identify and personally greet 4,500 passengers daily.

Personal Service or Privacy Concern?

Not surprisingly, the move has many privacy watchdog groups and consumer rights groups scratching their heads. Nick Pickles, a personal privacy advocate, believes that British Airways is treading on thin ice with this new program, and it could constitute a privacy violation.

“Fundamentally, British Airways has not asked their passengers’ permission to search Google to find their picture or any other information.” He goes on to say that the move is an open admission that “major international companies now recognize the best way to find out personal information about its customers is to ask Google.”

British Airways disagrees, saying that the program is designed to enhance the overall customer experience with a personal touch.

“We’re essentially trying to recreate the feeling of recognition you get in a favorite restaurant when you’re welcomed there,” says Joe Boswell, head of customer analysis for British Airways. “[…] in our case, it will be delivered by thousands of staff to millions of customers. This is just the start. The system has a myriad of possibilities for the future.”

“Possibilities for the Future”

Reports on the program all suggest that along with Google Image searches, British Airways will be digging up their previous flight history, their travel itinerary for the trip, as well as a history of the customer’s complaints with the airline. This by itself raises a number of questionable ideas: will you be as warmly received as the next flyer if you have a history of problems with the airline?

The Information Commissioner’s Office, a privacy watchdog group, says that the new program would have to adhere to privacy laws concerning data access and proper use. British Airways has ensured the press that they are “entirely compliant with the UK Data Protection Act” and that this program would not purposefully break any privacy laws. Furthermore, the program would specifically be used with “high-profile travelers such as captains of industry who would be using our first class facilities” comments a British Airways spokesperson.

Content writers understand the power of Google search and how information spreads around—we write content that fuels those search results. We’re not deciding any final verdicts on this service until it is actually enacted and currently practiced, but for now, we’re scratching our heads. Would we want to be personally greeted by someone we’ve never met, just before takeoff? Would you?

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Andrew Glasscock is currently based in Nashville, Tennessee. He graduated with a BA in English, specialized in Creative Writing, with a minor in Marketing this past May. Along with copywriting, he loves being an improv comedian, playing frisbee, and dogs.

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