British Airways wants to know you: a case study in absurdity

airport security

 By Simon Davies

If it wasn’t for such stiff competition, this week’s Idiocy Award should have gone to the creepy new British Airways “Know You” programme, which empowers airline staff to conduct an online trawl for passenger information such as photographs and blog entries.

The company says it wants to learn more about higher-value flyers so it can get cosy with them before they board – like some sort of fluffy PNR programme. BA says it intends to “put a face to the name before the customer sets foot in the airport”.

According to the useful gossip-rag Marketing Week BA has gathered all its data on customers from every service channel – the website, call centre, email, on board planes and inside airports – into one ‘data warehouse’, from where it can be used at any of those points of contact.

The plan is one of a hotchpotch of BA data schemes that utilise a van-load of discounted iPads that are being rolled out across the company.  BA has got religion over iPads and intends to exploit them.

Much has been written in recent weeks about the effrontery of the new plan but in the ensuing privacy furore the commentators seem to have lost their sense of humour. The BA scheme is more hilarious than it is shocking.

Before I even start on the litany of technical fallibilities let’s glance for a moment at the logistics.

Would someone please tell me who exactly will have the time to operate this system? Certainly no-one in BA. As with all airlines, even before 9/11, staffing has been savaged by multiple reviews, leaving relations between the company and unions in tatters. Last April BA announced plans to retrench 400 workers at Gatwick airport, including 170 customer support staff.l The carnage will continue into the indefinite future until the company returns to profit.

The idea then that overworked staff will be armed with a dossier of low-res photographs and then told to go forth and hunt down passengers before they check in is a little beyond belief. There simply aren’t the people on hand to do that. Most front-of-house staff are occupied with the task of sorting out human interface problems with check-in machines. At the moment, exploration of the system is confined to a small and isolated unit of “Special Services” staff who are tasked with the thankless role of dealing with complaints from irritated frequent fliers.

Even if staff could be found to trawl the Internet it’s likely the diplomatic fallout could be savage. Passengers are left with precious little dignity at airports and I’m betting the last thing they want is to engage in PR rituals.

However it is the technical fallibility of the plan that is most telling. Airports are uniquely multi-cultural places where staff are required to deal with countless racial groups and nationalities. In its zeal to enable an unproven PR theory BA has overlooked the Cross-race Effect  in which identification of facial characteristics has been shown to work mainly within one’s own racial group.

Any reputational risk assessment on this system would most likely rank it alongside the “New Coke” campaign. Maybe in the perfect world of customer relationship management the plan could work, but in the imperfect world of data it’s inevitably going to crash and burn.

Like many big companies BA never really got its messaging clear on privacy. Jo Boswell, head of customer analysis at BA said of the scheme: “We’re essentially trying to recreate the feeling of recognition you get in a favourite restaurant when you’re welcomed there, but 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.”

This is the same airline that in reference to yet another iPad scheme said in a recent article “Customers have been telling us that they enjoy their privacy,”

Then why oh why has BA decided to allow business class customers the option of stalking each other? According to the Melbourne Herald Sun the new seating system allows Business Class passengers to make their data available to other Business Class passengers on the same flight in order to increase the chances of serendipitous sitting-together of people with common business (or other) interests. Presumably they are provided with iPads for this purpose.

Two can play the Google Search game. As veteran privacy advocate Roger Clarke observed: “attractive people might want to pause and ask themselves what information a stalker might be interested in”.

One thing is clear. BA is rapidly becoming the Facebook of the Sky.