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Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Mammoth American Airlines Trades Passenger Privacy for Profit

“Personalizing the flying experience” Sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? Let’s add to it, “and better target promotions.” This addendum has doubtlessly been lauded in the corporate hallways at American Airlines, yet that airline’s completed phrase likely smacks of a marketing ploy to the general public. Specifically, the first part hinges on the second, which in turn is a function of profit-seeking and ultimately greed. As per the general relationship between increasing risk and reward, the airline’s strategy is not without risk.
According to Maya Leibman, the head of technology and information at American, the airline traditionally prohibited flight attendants from saving most data, such as meal orders, about particular flyers. Leibman explains that policy as resulting from a “gut reaction” that collecting more data would violate fliers’ privacy.[1]  She adds that in changing course ostensibly to “personalize a flying experience,” the airline’s management risks crossing “a line between providing excellent customer service and suddenly becoming creepy.”[2] That is to say, squeezing out additional revenue (i.e., marginal revenue), one of the (marginal) costs is the risk of offending customers and developing a rather squalid reputation.
As just one example, suppose a regular passenger who is HIV positive typically asks for a cup of water in-flight in order to take the medication. A flight attendant reports the request as data attached to that passenger’s account. During the passenger’s next flight, a flight attendant “pro-actively” asks the passenger whether he would like water.
“For what?” might be the reply immediately after a nap.
“I just thought for all the pills you have to take that you might want some water.”
Now the people sitting nearby know that something is wrong with that passenger, and this realization  could not but impact any conversations with the passenger. A grandmother sitting in the next seat over might be inclined to ask the passenger why he or she is taking so much medication. As an aside, invasiveness is so ingrained in the dominant mentality in my hometown that efforts to enforce any sort of personal boundaries are typically regarded as an attack warranting at least passive aggression. Moreover, for 1.8 million years when our species lived in small clans or bands, gossip was a principal means enabling social interaction. The tendency may be in our genes through eons of layers of natural selection.
A spokesperson for American Airlines would certainly have a policy statement at hand designed to assuage our fears by insisting that employees are regulated by the airline in what they can say, but human nature, is, well, human, all too human. Additionally, consider the natural reaction of the passenger to his or her medication being virtually announced, especially given the social stigma of being HIV positive. Even without the illness itself being made public, the passenger would surely feel anxious in fearing that the employee “knows.” A strange look from another passenger might incur a similar reaction. I do not believe that a corporate policy can take account of such subtle dynamics of social interaction. In other words, the human brain can easily transcend the superficiality of policy.
Therefore, a myriad of ethical problems could be unleashed as airlines such as American edge closer to invasiveness in order to “personalize” and ultimately profit. From this perspective, even a “right to privacy” seems rather superficial. In line with Locke’s theory of government, privacy is likely a domain in which a natural rather than merely government-sanctioned right exists, owing to the “gut reaction” that a person knows too much, and is thus “creepy.” In business terms, airline managements may want to remember that marginal increases in revenue decrease to a point below the corresponding increases in marginal cost. Attentiveness to a naturalistic ethic is part of management in that that sort of “gut reaction” can keep a manager from crossing the line, financially and otherwise.

1. Jack Nicas, “How Airlines Are Mining Personal Data In-Flight,” The Wall Street Journal, November 8, 2013.
2. Ibid.