British Airways Should Ignore Privacy Group Concerns


It has gained attention in recent weeks that British Airways has taken to Google-stalking its V.I.P customers, equipping thousands of staff with iPads so they can search for information about the passenger prior to their flight and greet them accordingly.

Of course, it has caught the attention of privacy groups as well, creating headlines that they are upset with BA’s latest trick, calling it invasive.

Please, pipe down.

The problem I have with these claims is that the sleuthing BA agents are using primarily social networking sites like Facebook and LinkedIn, which are entirely created–along with their privacy settings–by the actual user. So if someone is really so concerned about privacy, or finds it offensive that an airline agent would know where they happen to work or where they went to school, they can simply choose not to participate in those channels, or ratchet up the privacy so they cannot be found. These are both possible. But if you are going to choose to use social sites, isn’t it done so with the understanding that you are putting yourself “out there” at least a little bit? While I understand some people will participate simple to communicate with friends or professional contacts they already have, the few individuals I know who really are genuinely concerned about privacy and uncomfortable with any information about them being public simply don’t have Facebook accounts. So BA agents wouldn’t be able to find much about them anyway.

For those people who choose not to participate in social networking but are still easily found on Google, well, they should be proud. It probably means they accomplished something newsworthy. And as much as a famous actor or footballer may want to be able to stay out of the news and go unrecognized at the supermarket, that’s just not the way it works. It comes with the territory, always has, and always will. Even given the choice, I’m pretty sure most would not be willing to give up their fortune or fame for anonymity.

To me, these privacy group complaints are meaningless, and perhaps even a bit hypocritical that you have people worried about privacy trying specifically to bring attention to themselves. The notion of airlines (or any companies) collecting information about their customers is not a new one–loyalty programs have long been into maturity.

Whether it’s really worthwhile to British Airways is a different debate, however. While the odd V.I.P. customer who may be truly touched by the extra gesture of staff recognizing some recent accomplishment may smile, the vast majority of the relevant information about the passenger that may actually impact his or her experience (such as previous trips or lost baggage, etc.) is available in the airline’s own internal database. And while V.I.P. types may indeed like recognition, I’m not convinced that the added benefit from Google beyond the basic customer history is truly going to make an impact on that individual journey. For every case where the V.I.P. is truly flattered, there may be another awkward “how did you know that?” moment…and in either case, would it really be something that would make that V.I.P. go out of his or her way to fly on British Airways next time?

So while it’s a creative gesture that British Airways has undertaken, I find it somewhat short-sighted on actual ROI. But given that a few thousand iPads doesn’t even make a dent in the books of an airline the size of BA, it’s worth a try to see what happens. And as for the privacy groups, well, they should just take themselves out of the spotlight if they are so concerned about their privacy.

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Customer Engagement Strategy for the Airline Industry