In an airline industry first, British Airways' Know Me program uses Google images to ID its best customers even before they set foot in the airport. The airline has equipped its customer service agents and senior cabin crew with iPads so they can easily tap into and share information about customers, including their preferences, flight history and yes, photos.
While British Airways says the program, which launched earlier this month, helps "put a face to the name," it's got some people asking whether the airline is going the extra mile or just acting downright creepy.
The idea behind the initiative, the airline said, is to personalize the flying experience. It gave the example of a Silver Executive Club member flying in business class for the first time. Crew members would know to welcome that customer and explain the benefits of the cabin.
Or if a regular traveler has experienced problems on previous flights, such as delays, crew members would be informed of that so they could acknowledge the previous problems and thank the customer for his or her continued patronage.
Jo Boswell, head of customer analysis at British Airways, said, "We're essentially trying to re-create the feeling of recognition you get in a favorite restaurant when you're welcomed there, but in our case it will be delivered by thousands of staff to millions of customers."
Despite such stated good intentions, the program is not without its critics. "Since when has buying a flight ticket meant giving your airline permission to start hunting for information about you on the Internet?" Nick Pickles, director of the London-based privacy campaign group Big Brother Watch, told the Los Angeles Times.
But George Hobica, founder of Airfarewatchdog.com, told ABC News he thought the program was a "great idea," saying the airline wasn't snooping into private records, only using information that's already been made public and is easily obtainable on the Internet.
"I think the more the airline knows about the passenger, the better service they can provide," Hobica said. "I wouldn't be creeped out by this. I'd be somewhat flattered that at least on BA, I'm finally famous."
Certainly, there will be kinks to work out. If the airline relies soley on Google images to recognize customers, mistakes are bound to be made, especially for those fliers who share a name with others.
But according to Boswell, customers, at least so far, seem to like the Know Me program. "The early results have been extremely positive. Our customers love being recognized and treated as individuals, and our customer service staff and cabin crew [can] deliver a really bespoke service."
British Airways isn't the first in the travel industry to collect information beyond what's given when a reservation is made. Starwood hotels, which owns such brands as W, Westin, Sheraton and St. Regis, uses social media to collect information about its guests as part of a program called Global Personalization at Starwood.
Starwood calls it game-changing innovation, but criticism on at least one popular travel message board has been blistering.
As for Know Me, British Airways plans to grow the program. "This is just the start, said Boswell. "The system has myriad possibilities for the future."