Social Networking and Airline Travel: What the Legal Consequences of an Airline’s “Meet and Seat” Program Might Be
KLM Airlines announced recently that it will be launching a new application called “Meet and Seat,” which allows passengers to find out about other travelers, and select the person next to whom they will sit on a flight, based on his or her Facebook profile or LinkedIn account. Passengers would need to “opt in” to participate, but KLM hasn’t made clear whether both passengers must accept a seat pairing for it to occur.
Upon first reflection, the “Meet and Seat” program sounds like a neat idea. It will enable a traveler to sit next to someone who shares an interest or profession. It might even allow people to have a blind date while flying cross-country. Choosing a seatmate is more exciting than deciding between peanuts and pretzels for an in-the-air snack. Yet upon further consideration, this new app may be problematic. Indeed, “Meet and Seat” may cause countless legal hiccups for KLM and any other airline that chooses to implement a similar program.
In this column, I will describe what is known thus far about the KLM initiative, and other recent, similar efforts, and discuss some of the problems with this idea—including the legal risks for airlines and passengers alike.
Some Unanswered Questions Regarding the KLM Program
According to news reports, KLM announced its new program at a conference, rather than in a press release, so more information about “Meet and Seat” still may be forthcoming. What we know now is that, in early 2012, KLM plans to launch a pilot of the program, which will link people’s online profiles to their passenger records when they check in online. It is not clear how far in advance people will be able to link their profiles to their reservations or seat assignments. KLM says it is still working on the features, and has not disclosed whether the service will cost anything. Some commentators have dubbed the service a new type of mile-high “matchmaking.”
KLM isn’t the first airline to incorporate social media into its services. Malaysian Airlines is reportedly launching a service whereby it will allow passengers to check to see if they have any friends who are booked on their flight, or who are visiting the same destination at the same time. KLM will take networking a step further by letting you click on seats adjacent to the ones you’re considering, to see travelers’ Facebook profiles. The system would let you choose a fellow passenger with whom you have something in common.
“Meet and Seat” is an opt-in program, meaning that passengers will have to agree to share their profiles online; others can still choose to remain anonymous. As part of opting in, KLM will likely require that passengers agree to a set of Terms and Conditions that include waivers of liability for any kind of mishap that might occur as a result of using the matchmaking service.
The Potential Problems With “Meet and Seat” and Similar Services
It is easy to imagine the kind of mishaps that could arise from “Meet and Seat.” To begin, Facebook and LinkedIn profiles are not always representative of who we really are—and in some cases may be downright fictitious. What happens when a passenger sits down in his or her seat, only to find that his or her seatmate is not the person he or she expected? In a worst-case scenario, a person with a misrepresented profile might harass, stalk, verbally abuse, or otherwise intimidate his or her seatmate during and/or after the flight. If that occurs, will KLM really be able to hide behind its waiver? One nightmare scenario might involve a racist who spends the flight taunting a seatmate of a different race or ethnicity, or a sexual harasser who purposefully chooses a female seatmate he can harass.
Moreover, what if pre-selected seatmates simply clash? Will flight attendants be left saying, “Sorry, you agreed to this, so play nice for six hours and make it work?” Passengers who have opted out of the program may not be eager to work with the airlines to switch seats in order to accommodate those who eagerly opted into the social-networking option, but then clashed with their pre-selected seatmates.
Ostracism or even bullying may also follow from this kind of program. A person who is not seen as conventionally attractive or popular may suffer from negative Facebook comments if they are not selected, and may repeatedly be left without seatmates.
Will teenagers be able to use the service, and how will this impact family travel? Will a high-school student be able to sit away from her parents, with a new “friend,” on the plane? And, what are some of the ramifications of teens having their profiles revealed to members of the general public?
Moreover, even if a passenger does not sit next to someone, he may still have access to that person’s Facebook profile and name, and know which seats other identified passenger have selected. After a flight, some travelers might routinely post comments on their Facebook pages about the behavior of fellow travelers such as “John Doe” in Seat 23 F.
It is also unclear how social networking will impact those of us who choose NOT to participate in programs such as “Meet and Seat.” Will there be parts of the plane reserved for social networkers? And will that mean that everyone else is relegated to the worst parts of the plane (for instance, the parts nearest the bathrooms)? If so, there may be implicit pressure to join in and become part of the social-networking crowd.
Some people may also have good reason to choose not to participate in social networking in order to select seats. Some of us value our privacy, and will not want to disclose our identities to other passengers, but our refusal to do so may raise more questions from those who do opt in.
Will “Meet and Seat” and Similar Programs Run Afoul of Discrimination Laws?
Under the law, airlines are categorized as common carriers, which cannot refuse a passenger (except, of course, for security reasons). In some instances, airplanes are also deemed places of public accommodation, where the government must protect us from certain forms of discrimination—because we all need, at times, to use planes to get places. Thus, if “Meet and Seat” were to somehow inhibit our freedom of movement, that might be illegal—or, at a minimum, it might constitute an ugly example of how individual bias or preference can lead to de facto systematic discrimination within a group of people.
One could imagine that some passengers might routinely choose to sit near those who share their same race, ethnicity, religion, etc., thus leaving other passengers without seatmates. And, one might imagine such practices leading to de facto segregation. Or a curious passenger might act like a private eye, reviewing many profiles and deciding that someone is a potential terrorist—leading to a new type of profiling.
Someday, will we even have sections of planes for different gangs, clubs, ethnic groups, and the like? While these hypothetical scenarios may be improbable, they illustrate the challenges that are posed when one allows hundreds of people to express their personal preferences in places that are viewed as public, and that are integral to our daily lives and livelihoods.
At the very minimum, KLM and other air carriers that institute “Meet and Seat” programs should state that seat preferences should not be based solely on certain traits. Unfortunately, however, it is unclear how an airline could enforce such a policy.
Will “Meet and Seat” Work? A Prior, Similar Failed Service Suggests that It Might Not
People are already tweeting and posting comments about the anticipated KLM launch. Some like the idea of being able to choose an interesting travel companion; others are creeped out by the thought of having a “date” in the air. Notably, another company, “AirTroductions,” offered an in-the-air matchmaking service in 2006, and appears to have closed it down—perhaps due to lack of demand.
Currently, there are other Internet businesses that appear to offer related services—but not to all passengers on the same flight. For example, TripLife “offers every traveler the opportunity to interact with their fellow travelers, be it on a plane, at their hotel, the local golf course, or even in the streets of a foreign city, by letting you enter your itinerary, and introducing you to fellow travelers who share part or all of that same itinerary.” If a passenger is flying to Las Vegas for a convention, he or she can “start networking on the plane by finding people in your industry on the same flight.”
How is TripLife different from “Meet and Seat”? The answer seems to be that, by using TripLife, the client receives a personalized service that caters to his or her individual needs, rather than embarking with many others upon an in-plane social experiment.
Some Other Benefits of Social Networking for Air Travelers
While “Meet and Seat” has a possible downside, other forms of social networking may be very positive for the traveler. For instance, a traveler may network to find others to share a charter flight to the same destination, under the “group-then-go” model, which avoids an existing legal impediment to selling charter travel.
Charters are meant to be the opposite of regular, scheduled air travel, with commercial airlines. If one person charters an aircraft, and then attempts to sell available seats, he or she is illegally selling “scheduled” air transport without US Department of Transportation authority to do so; and the charter operator would itself be conducting scheduled transportation without FAA authority. However, if a group of people find each other, and collectively decide to charter an plane, nobody is engaging in the sale of scheduled service; rather, each person is purchasing a bona fide service as part of a group.
Social networking and possible new charter “apps” will allow people with similar travel needs to find each other, and, if so inclined, to book a charter together—all in compliance with federal aviation law.
Moreover, if my request for a certain flight gets bundled with those of others prior to our together requesting a quote for a charter service, the cost of a charter, per passenger, can be reduced significantly. One can imagine a “Groupon”-type phenomenon—of a charter flight being booked only if a certain number of passengers choose a trip. A number of Group-Then-Go Sites already exist, such as wannajet.com, socialflights.com, and www.cogojet.com.
Social networking tools can now allow us to choose with whom we travel, even if we are choosing strangers. Sometimes, this ability can be tremendously useful—as with group-then-go for private charter flights. And sometimes, this ability may have both upsides and downsides, as with “Meet and Seat.” It will be interesting to see, over time, whether programs such as Meet and Seat prove more useful than they are troublesome to the travelers who use them.