A Virgin Atlantic employee uses Google Glass to check in premium-class passengers arriving at a guest lounge at London’s Heathrow Airport. The airline’s use of Google Glass headsets to harness data about premium-class passengers has raised privacy concerns. Image Credit: New York Times

London: As the door of his limousine opened outside Virgin Atlantic’s business class lounge at Heathrow Airport one recent afternoon, Declan Jones was startled to be greeted by more than just a smiling face.

Kenneth Charles, a Virgin customer service agent, picked up Jones’ suitcase and peered at him through a Google Glass headset, which had been informed of Jones’s arrival by the driver of the limo, a pickup service provided by the airline to its most-valued customers.

Without breaking eye contact with his guest, Charles consulted the virtual reality glasses to verify the details of Jones’s flight to Newark, New Jersey. He also confirmed the other data Virgin had on file for Jones, including his passport information, frequent flyer status and whether he had completed the necessary customs and immigration formalities for travel from London to the United States.

“Spooky,” said Jones, a 48-year-old pharmaceuticals executive from Hertfordshire, north of London, before slipping into the lounge’s clubhouse.

Virgin Atlantic’s use of Google Glass headsets, as well as Sony smart watches worn by its Heathrow lounge staff, are part of a six-week experiment that began last month, and are among ways that some airlines are harnessing data about premium-class travellers in a quest to provide an ever more personal service. (Even if some of the techniques strike travellers as perhaps overly personal.)

At a time when many airline “innovations” — like charging extra for an aisle seat or cutting back on frequent flyer benefits — might anger more than amaze, analysts say that efforts by carriers to associate their brands with the latest in digital wizardry have the potential to generate a positive buzz among customers and allow them to compile valuable information about passenger behaviours and preferences.

“It’s very high on the agenda of a lot of airlines, because technology is often a pretty low-cost way to improve service,” said Raymond Kollau, an analyst and founder of Airlinetrends.com, a research firm in Haarlem, the Netherlands.

But some experts say carriers should proceed with caution.

“Using technology to position itself as a forward-thinking airline can have a positive impact on preference” among flyers, said Henry H. Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst in San Francisco for Hudson Crossing, a consulting firm. “But there is a very fine line between cool and creepy.”

One airline system that delves even more deeply into business travellers’ data was rolled out late last year by the Australian carrier Qantas Airways. It enables Qantas to monitor, in real time, social-media conversations taking place within its airport lounges.

The tool can pick up all the Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram or Pinterest posts of any lounge guests who have enabled geolocation services on their mobile devices, whether they are using the airport’s WiFi network or their own service provider. The system also captures the content of users who have “checked in” to the lounge via sites like Foursquare or who have activated the “places” function on Facebook.

Qantas’ lounge staff members have been equipped with iPads that receive an alert whenever a user posts content from that location. The airline uses the system in all its premium lounges in Australia, as well as in several others around the world, including Singapore, Los Angeles, Kennedy Airport in New York, London Heathrow and Dubai.

Rohan Kissun, 30, who flies twice a week with Qantas, said he often used his downtime in the airline’s lounge to browse and update his social media accounts on his mobile devices. Although he is tech savvy — he works for an internet security firm — he was unaware of Qantas’ monitoring system until a reporter told him about it. So he had no clue of what was about to happen one morning last month when he was in the Qantas business lounge at Sydney Airport.

Noticing Australia’s former prime minister, John Howard, at the buffet, Kissun asked to take a picture with him on his smartphone, which Kissun then posted to his Instagram account with the comment: “Not normally a selfie taker... but couldn’t resist with our former PM this morning.”

Shortly thereafter, Kissun noticed that someone at Qantas had seen and “liked” the image, sharing it with the airline’s more than 26,000 Instagram followers.

“I was quite taken aback,” Kissun said. “I would not have thought that photo could have attracted any attention from them.”

Kissun said that he would prefer Qantas to be more transparent with customers. Now that he is aware of the practice, he said, “I would be more inclined to calm down about what I’m uploading.”

Jo Boundy, the head of digital communication at Qantas, said the airline each month was capturing about 7,000 location-tagged Facebook posts and around 30,000 tweets and Instagram updates. But she dismissed the suggestion that some passengers might find the practice overly intrusive, arguing that social media was by definition a public medium.

“People are putting these comments out there for the world for see,” Boundy said. She noted that its system could not access posts on a closed Facebook page, for example. “We can only see things that are already out in the public domain.”

In any case, a recent demonstration of the technology that Qantas conducted for The New York Times revealed various content that users might not normally want to share with their airline. One post bemoaned a previous night’s overindulgence; another critiqued the appearance of a group of fellow passengers, accompanied by an unflattering photo.

“It is a little disconcerting to me that Qantas could be monitoring anybody’s Twitter stream when it doesn’t pertain to the airline,” Harteveldt, the analyst, said. “There is a challenge here for any business to understand where does the involvement and engagement begin and where does it end.”

Virgin Atlantic and Qantas are not alone in using technology to try to get closer to their customers.

Two years ago, British Airways equipped more than 2,000 flight attendants with iPads containing the itineraries of premium-class passengers, complaint histories, meal preferences and even a Google Image search function to help them identify any VIP aboard. Despite an outcry from privacy groups, the airline said the system — called Know Me — is still in use and complies with British data protection laws because it uses information that passengers have already provided to the airline or that is already in the public domain.

Mobile apps

In the United States, American Airlines has quietly begun a trial of Bluetooth-enabled beacons in five major airports, including at La Guardia in New York, that can track and send messages to the devices of passengers who have downloaded one of the airline’s mobile applications. The airline has billed the system as one that can, for example, guide wayward passengers to the appropriate gate or prod a straggler who has not yet cleared security. It is also considering using the app to promote seat upgrades or other offers once a traveller arrives in the boarding area.

Virgin Atlantic, for its part, seems intent on building upon its reputation as a tech trendsetter. The British airline, jointly owned by Richard Branson’s Virgin Group and by Delta Air Lines, was among the first to switch from overhead to seat-back video screens in the 1980s. Its sister carrier Virgin America installed in-flight WiFi across its fleet in 2009, years ahead of many other airlines.

So as Virgin Atlantic sees it, the move to equip lounge staff with wearable devices that have access to passengers’ data is another way to make its brand digitally distinctive. The back-end software that pushes Virgin’s passenger data to the Google Glass headsets and the Sony smart watches was developed by a Swiss airline technology company called SITA, which said it was an Google-authorised “explorer” of Google Glass but that Google itself was not involved in the project and would receive none of the passenger data.

Charles, the Virgin customer service agent, conceded that some passengers “do a bit of a double take” when confronted with his futuristic headgear. “One man said ‘Great, I’m being greeted by a cyborg.’ ”

Hani Abu Halka, a passenger who was checking in for the same recent Heathrow-to-Newark flight as Jones, was intrigued.

“I’ve read a lot about Google Glass, but this is the first time I’ve ever seen it,” he said. Abu Halka, 37, who works for a health care company in London, wondered aloud if the headset could determine whether any window seats were still available (it could) and if, when viewed through the device, he looked anything like George Clooney (he did not).

Tim Graham, Virgin Atlantic’s head of technology innovation, said that, for now, the Google Glass’s headset camera and video recording functions had been disabled in a nod to traveller privacy. But he said that Virgin was not generally concerned about alienating its passengers by using the technology.

“Maybe some people think it is a bit Big Brotherish, but I think more people are curious than scared by it,” he said. “We are trying to get across that it is about using the information we already hold about them in a smarter way to get them through the process quicker.”

Analysts, though, say the travel industry must be increasingly sensitive to the public’s wariness about technologies that capture and share data, particularly in the wake of recent revelations about digital snooping by governments.

Kollau, the Airlinetrends.com analyst, said that airlines would be wise to be clear with passengers about what they are doing. “It has to be fully transparent,” he said. “Because if there is any doubt, then people will be suspicious — and rightly so.”