Lo-res_1221423478-SPlanes are getting smarter. That’s clearly a beneficial development, in that it means air travel is getting safer and more efficient. Current airliner models are lighter, such that they burn less fuel, and feature onboard monitoring systems that can diagnose a potential mechanical problem before the plane leaves the ground. Beyond these clear benefits, smarter planes also have implications for passengers and the marketers trying to convince them to fly—only some of which represent evidently positive developments.

But on the positive side, enhanced flight-tracking and navigational technologies increase the chances that each flight will arrive on time. Air traffic controllers can better allocate the planes in local airspace, so there should be fewer delays to wait for a runway to become available. Pilots use weather forecasting systems to anticipate and avoid pockets of air that will create turbulence, creating a more pleasant customer experience. Advanced communication technologies allow onboard flight crew members to communicate with members of the ground crew, ensuring that all the personnel involved in getting passengers where they need to go are working collaboratively and with up-to-the-minute information. The aircraft monitoring systems also have substantial benefits for consumers, who can rest better assured that the service they are purchasing is safe. That is, advanced technologies increase the quality of the service provided (e.g., getting them to their destination on time, providing a smoother ride), potentially lower prices (e.g., by lowering the airlines’ fuel costs and increasing their labor efficiency), and diminish consumers’ purchase risk.

But other technology tools and the data they collect raise some concerns for consumers, especially with regard to privacy. The relatively new carrier AirAsia actively embraces cutting-edge technology developments that would enable it to link biometric data about passengers, such as fingerprints that it might collect for security screening purposes, with those travelers’ ticket preferences or in-flight purchases. Although arguably such connections might lead to more personalized offers, it also might entail an excessive violation of people’s privacy.

Furthermore, some airlines already struggle to handle the massive amounts of data available to them, which may create additional risks. Most of the major carriers have legacy reservation systems that, thus far, have not kept pace with the online sales technology available in many other market segments. As they work to combine new data streams with their existing systems, there is a realistic worry that some of those data might be used in unpermitted ways or shared across platforms, without sufficient security.

Such concerns are especially pressing due to the current state of the travel industry. The drastic reductions in travel imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic prompted most airlines to begin retiring their older aircraft at a pace that was about twice their average annual turnover. Without sufficient demand, they were able to decommission more planes. In turn, the fleets that remain contain greater proportions of the new, technology-enabled, data-collecting aircraft.

Thus, more and more data are coming, and airplanes keep getting smarter. It is up to the airlines and marketing professionals to ensure they make responsible, effective, appropriate uses of those data, to provide more benefits and limit more threats to passengers.

Discussion Questions

  1. What kinds of personalization could airlines provide to travelers, using data gathered from their reservation and in-flight actions?
  2. How might tracking technology improve airlines’ efficient operations?

Source: Christine Negroni, “Newer Planes Are Providing Airlines with a Trove of Data,” The New York Times, April 20, 2021