How Airlines Use Your Data to Make Money

How airlines track your travel and spending habits

The global airline industry contributes $664.4 billion to global GDP. Over three billion passengers fly each year accompanies by 50 million tons of freight. [1]

Airlines do struggle do stay profitable. News of major airline mergers and acquisitions never comes as a surprise. Airlines obviously generate revenue from tickets sales. Anyone who flies knows, carriers take in quite a bit of cash by charging steep fees for checked baggage. Even bare bones that offer low fares soak customers’ wallets for everything from printing a boarding pass at the airport to bringing a coat on board.

So how else do airlines make money? Just like Facebook and Google, that have come under fire for relentlessly track and use people’s data to increase revenue, airlines track your every move too.

Email Marketing

It all begins with your ticket or contract of carriage. Your carrier sold you a ticket and the data tracking and upselling began right there. After buying a ticket, a traveler typically is peppered with targeted emails. Offers that contain products and services offers for services like currency exchange, begin long before the trip.

Seemingly helpful but salesy emails may also contain offers from hotel and rental car partners your airline has shared your data with. United Airlines privacy policy states that they, “For marketing and advertising. United may use your information, individually, in the aggregate, and/or combined with demographic information that we maintain or collect from third parties, for marketing and advertising purpose.” This may easily be far more than a traveler thought they signed up for when they bought that airplane ticket.

UAL Ordering Kiosk Newark

Airline Apps Mine Data

Did you download your airline’s mobile app so you could get notifications about your flight or use a mobile boarding pass? Well, the airlines track you there too! Mobile app usage opens up a larger realm of customer behavior tracking for the airline as it adds a layer of data with location tracking data.

From an app, the airline can tell when you arrived at the airport as well as your whereabouts. When the app privacy policy states it uses location data to enhance customer experience. That means track where you are and where you’ve been courtesy of your phone’s location tracking. It may mean an app tracks you to straight to your hotel and every restaurant you go on your trip!

Airport kiosks

Newark (EWR) airport terminal C and A are both loaded with lots of seating. Each seat is accompanied by a tablet ordering kiosk mounted on the table. Food and drinks can be ordered and are delivered quickly to wherever you are sitting. Very cool! A few taps, swipe a payment card, and your order is on its way. My breakfast was swiftly delivered within 10 minutes of me tapping a few buttons.

The convenient ordering kiosk prompts you to scan your boarding pass to begin the ordering press. This is optional, and my advice is to skip this step. This boarding pass swipe is used to push flight status notifications to the tablet you are seated at. I never do this! Again, more tracking for you and more data for them! Plus, it’s just creepy.

So why the boarding pass? Although you will receive real time updates about your flight, it’s also more behavior tracking. Very simple. Combine that with data from the app and the credit card you issue used, there is a wealth of data harvested.

Airline Branded Credit Cards

The kiosk messaging encourages you to use your United branded card to receive a handsome 20% discount on the entire purchase. I cannot pass on that offer since my two eggs, toast, handful of lettuce leaves, and cappuccino set me back $20 USD. Social media channels like Facebook use credit card purchase histories to build audiences and then use that aggregate data to sell advertising space on their platform.

Using my United Airlines branded credit card at their east coast hub kiosk while I’m logged into the app supplies crazy amounts of information about my airport habits! I like to arrive at the airport early. I go to a lounge or patronize a restaurant while I wait. Yes, the app can track that too. I always buy the same snacks at CIBO or equivalent and never buy anything onboard the aircraft. Social media sites like Facebook use credit card purchase data to track the effectiveness of their adverts. So does your airline. The more you know.

Although the airlines get away with all of this because they state in in their privacy policy. Let’s face it most don’t bother to read the legalese. That’s why regulations like the European Union’s GDPR which went into effect in May of this year exist. People should be given the choice to opt in to data sharing and marketing rather than struggle with how to stop all the money grabbing offers that rain on them because data on their spending habits are being mercilessly passed along.

Sources:
[1] aviationbenefits.org/

Michelle writes about cyber security as well as how to protect your data online. She has worked in internet technology for over 20 years Michelle earned a B.S. in Engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. She conducts workshops focused on web technologies and enjoys public speaking along with her connected rescue mutt.