Passenger Privacy – What the Airlines Know about You

If you think you’re just an anonymous passenger on a plane, think again. As FareCompare co-founder and airfare analyst Rick Seaney has long pointed out, airlines know their customers. For instance, they know exactly when we want to fly (and exhibit A is the crowds you’ll see at the airports this Thanksgiving). What else do they know? More than you might think.

What to expect at the airport this Thanksgiving

Booking a Flight: Treasure Trove of Info

As Seaney stated in the past, airlines work hard to know our travel and buying patterns, which makes sense from a business perspective:

“Airlines hire armies (well, at least squads) of computer geeks to work with complex software with one goal in mind: to maximize the profit on every seat – on every plane – on every route.” Rick Seaney, Jan. 7, 2011

But according to recent news reports, airlines now have access to more personal data than ever. As the Wall Street Journal put it, “Suddenly, flight attendants can know that the flier in seat 23B is a vegetarian and the couple behind him are on their honeymoon.”

It Starts with Booking a Flight

None of this surprises Seaney. “A simple booking is a treasure trove of information,” he told business reporter Gerri Willis recently (see the video below). “It has your name, your gender, your date of birth and if you have multiple passengers, you have all their information. If you then pay for it with a credit card, or use your employer’s credit card or your own, and you add a loyalty number, it opens up another trove of information.” It doesn’t end there, either.

7 Easy ways to save $20 (or much more) on every flight

Data Use – What Else They Know

Seaney said airlines also know if you like the cheapest flights or are willing to pay more, if you care how many stops a route includes and if you like to check in early or late. Sure, some customers might find it creepy if a flight attendant starts wishing them a happy birthday on the big day but as the Journal reports, airlines are aware of this and walk a fine line so as not to make passengers uncomfortable. Besides, said Seaney, airlines are hoping to eventually use the new data for the same old reason – to make more money. “The thing they really want to do is give you a different quote,” said Seaney, “to package you up a bundle of stuff so in theory, using new airline technology, [different passengers] might get a completely different price.”

Don’t fly much? Tips for once a year travelers

Data Use for Good

By the way, passenger information is sometimes closely monitored to the passenger’s benefit and this is especially true when it comes to delays. As Seaney reported in his weekly ABC News column earlier this year, airlines including Delta “have dedicated teams of employees who specifically keep an eye out for delayed [international] flights so they can physically shepherd travelers with tight connections to customs and/or immigration, getting them into shorter lines.” This above-and-beyond approach, notes Seaney, can be a real life-saver.

VIDEO: See airfare expert Rick Seaney on The Willis Report:


Published: November 20, 2013