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Virgin Airways moves from ‘cool’ to creepy as it forces Google Glass onto its customers

Screen Shot 2014-03-25 at 22.34.16By Simon Davies

Until now, Virgin Atlantic has dominated the airline “Cool League” (OK, so there’s not much competition out there, but that’s beside the point). Virgin has the coolest TV ads, the most awesome Premium Economy seats, the most inviting lounges and among the most meticulous customer care in the air.

But now Virgin has inexplicably poisoned this hard-won reputation by making its cabin staff wear Google Glasses.

"Ah hello Mr Smith. I do hope your Herpes Simplex is clearing up"

“Ah hello Mr Smith. I do hope your Herpes Simplex is clearing up”

“Now, rather excitingly, we can reveal that the Google Glass really will be up in the air for Virgin Atlantic customers, who will be using the smart eyewear on their flights to revolutionise passenger’s experiences,” the company’s website breathlessly announces.

What this statement actually means, judging by the promo photographs, is that Virgin staff will be doing most of the wearing, leaving customers to stew over what personal data are being processed by the smiling cabin crew.

Anyway, “revolutionise” is a much hyped word, particular in airline circles. British Airways went through this dizzy ambition a couple of years ago and it went nowhere. In 2012 the company flooded its planes and counters with iPads to “revolutionise” the customer experience, but that experience in some respects still seems pre-renaissance.

Exactly how does Virgin expect its revolution to happen? Well, to begin, Upper Class passengers will be “greeted by name” by a Glass-wielding staffer who,  perhaps, will have activated a face recognition app as they approach the check-in counter.

This will, presumably, be the same face recognition functionality that Google claimed will not (for now) be permitted for Glass. Is there something Google isn’t telling us?

Perhaps its time for Virgin customers to embark on a revolution of their own. A data protection notification advising that you don’t wish to be filmed by Google Glass would also throw the cat among the pigeons.

So, Virgin is going to face-scan passengers without consent. That’ll go down well. Or, like BA, is Virgin planning to use Glass to pull up online mugshots of its most valued customers? That too is not likely to be greeted with a smile by many people.

Some reports claim that the Glasses will interface with licence plate recognition systems that already exist at airports, but this would mean real-time analysis of driver and vehicle data.

Passengers should be wary that Virgin isn’t planning the Orwellian scheme that BA had embarked on, i.e to “put a face to the name before the customer sets foot in the airport”.

According to the useful gossip-rag Marketing Week BA had planned to gather 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. Virgin’s plan seems eerily similar.

“As the Glass advances, there are also expectations for staff to be able to inform fliers of the weather of they journey, and even customer’s dietary requirements.”

This is hardly a revolution. You can check the weather on-board using current technology and customers already notify airlines of their dietary needs. The Glass innovations seems like clutching at marketing straws – unless of course there’s a data amalgamation plan behind this move. Now that “would” be a revolution.

Perhaps its time for Virgin customers to embark on a revolution of their own. Sending tastefully worded letters of objection and refusing to interact with staff who may be filming and analysing our already stressful travel moments would send the right message. A data protection notification advising that you don’t wish to be filmed by Google Glass would also throw the cat among the pigeons.

After all, people who are forced to live in Glass houses have every right to throw such stones.