What's the biggest drama in flying today? No, not the price of tickets. I'm talking seatmate roulette.
Yes, that uneasy feeling you get as you slide into your empty row and watch the parade of passengers slogging down the aisle with Simon Cowell-scowls and wonder: Which one of these charming companions do I get? Forget that Seinfeld episode where Jerry sits next to the sexy supermodel; you'll be lucky to get Kramer.
Sigh. Are we forever doomed to seatmate pot luck? Maybe not.
Picture this: You board your plane and find yourself seated beside an old school chum, or that new software designer you've been dying to meet, or a good-looking woman who shares your passion for kayaking. Sounds pretty sci-fi, doesn't it? Almost revolutionary.
Well, the revolution is here. And whether you know it, you're already a part of it.
You are, I should say, if you're a member of Facebook. Or LinkedIn. Or any of the thousands of other Web sites or tools or software or apps that are part of the world of "social media."
You social media networkers -- what is it you do? Simple: Everyday, you tell the world -- via Facebook or Twitter or something else -- who you are and what you want. And the world is listening. And, even as we speak, some of those listeners are working hard to give you exactly what you want. Certainly, that's true when it comes to airline seating arrangements.
Have you heard of Satisfly? It's a new company headed by 27-year old Sergio Mello. The Italian-born entrepreneur is one of those folks who wants to give you what you want and thinks his new startup will fill the bill. His idea: to collect information from social networks and more -- with your permission -- and use that data to help the airlines provide you with a better customer service experience.
The key to that, he thinks, is passenger compatibility, which could mean anything from hanging with folks in similar businesses, or simply getting a seatmate who likes to snooze as much as you do. And, yes, it could also mean sitting next to someone you'd really like to get to know better. But Mello insists most travelers are less interested in hookups than in sharing business contacts, the names of favorite restaurants -- or just a taxi, if you're both into smaller carbon footprints.
Who Cares About Privacy?
Ultimately, passengers will learn about Satisfly from their social networks, and when they purchase airline tickets online, they may be asked to check a box that says, "Working Alone" or "Relax Alone" or "Business Networking" or even "Social Networking" -- depending on what they want to do during their flight. According to Mello, their "Intelligent Seating Service" will work with the airline's system to find you a like-minded seatmate.
But wait a minute -- isn't this all rather Big Brother-ish? Aren't there some things we don't want our nearest and dearest to know, let alone our airline? Apparently, merely asking that question marks one as a bystander of the social networking revolution. Otherwise, you would know that this is a revolution sans skeletons, since there are no longer any closets for them to hide in. Or, as Mello puts it, for the social networking crowd, "Privacy is simply no longer an issue."
Ah, but brand loyalty is an issue, one that Mello believes can be exploited. As his "solution" becomes integrated with an airline system, he expects the results will create a more comfortable experience for the passenger that will lead to greater loyalty to the airline that provides it. Satisfly is now working with Hawaiian Airlines, testing its seating solutions on employee passengers, and is "in discussions" with other carriers.
When you think about it, this isn't exactly new. It is a sort of reworking of the concept of affinity groups -- but taking it to the next level -- by marketing on a one-to-one basis.
Earlier, clumsier attempts at harnessing "affinity" might be illustrated by the late and not-so-lamented Hooters Air. And remember that proposed "all-smoking" airline from Germany? It got a lot of press, but never did get off the ground. And neither did the much ballyhooed "nudist flights" -- also from Germany (what this says about Germany is something I refuse to think about).
One affinity group enterprise that is expected to launch is Pet Airways -- the carrier's first all-dog-and-cat flight is scheduled to make its cross-country debut in July. But these pet passengers have little say in the matter -- and come to think of it, how much affinity is there between cats and dogs? But I digress …
Are You 'Satisflied' Yet?
Let me ask you: Will Satisfly -- and the companies that will no doubt follow -- change the way we fly? I could not say. But I do like Mr. Mello's underlying concept: "I want to make flying fun again." Amen to that.
This work is the opinion of the columnist and in no way reflects the opinion of ABC News.
Rick Seaney is one of the country's leading experts on airfare, giving interviews and analysis to news organizations, including ABC News, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Reuters, The Associated Press and Bloomberg. His Web site FareCompare.com offers consumers free, new-generation software, combined with expert insider tips to find the best airline ticket deal.