Friends in high places
Do you love the anonymity of flying, or are you one of those passengers who craves conversation with the stranger seated next to you? Hong Kong-based company Satisfly is using its so-called intelligent seating assignment to match passengers with their ideal seat partner according to preferences and social media profiles.
Initially launched by airBaltic on flights to and from Finland and Estonia, SeatBuddy (airbaltic.com/seatbuddy) will let passengers log in with their social media accounts, set a mood for their flight and define a desired neighbour profile.
As well as being able to request companions who speak certain languages and are of a similar age, you can ask to be surrounded by like-minded souls or those who share your hobbies or work in your industry. SeatBuddy isn't just for socialising; as well as 'business networking' and 'chat', you can set your flight preference to 'relax' or the more austere 'work'.
Before boarding, each passenger who's signed up for the free service will receive an ice breaker message informing them of the traits they share with their seat buddy: 'To your left is Joe Bloggs, a broker. To your right is John Smith, a chief executive.' Cue a knowing group nod as the trio all sit down and flip open their laptops in silence.
Not so, says Satisfly founder Sergio Mello. 'Data is still rough, but I can tell you the vast majority of our members picked the sociable flight moods.'
Satisfly, founded in Hong Kong four years ago by Italian entrepreneurs Mello and Edoardo Serra, uses information in a traveller's Facebook profile, but doesn't involve much interaction beyond being able to 'vote' for their neighbours, and the airline's performance. The system also stores your meal preferences. 'Passengers don't pick their seat neighbour,' says Mello. 'The customers can only select their preferred flight mood and what an ideal seat neighbour should have in common with them.'
If you've booked in to premium classes, Satisfly can automatically put forward your case for sitting among empty seats, or a position with extra legroom. Achieving the ideal position in an aircraft is every frequent flier's goal, and more manual, general airline map websites are proving popular. The most notable is SeatGuru, operated by the people behind TripAdvisor.
Offering 725 aircraft maps from 96 airlines, all frequently updated, seats are coloured either green, red or yellow, with each featuring a review fed by aggregated comments from its two million monthly users. 'More than half of our users are using SeatGuru as part of their research process,' says Andrew Wong, regional director at TripAdvisor. 'Often it's a question of which airline allows you to choose your seat before you purchase, the configuration, and whether one airline's seats recline or not.'
Arguably that kind of practical information is more important than who you might be sharing 12 hours with. 'It's private time away from the office and family, especially for business travellers,' says Wong, who's in two minds about intelligent seating. 'The concept of marrying people with common interests is something that most passengers might take some time to get used to - they're used to an anonymous experience on board.'
Although services like Satisfly do cater to those with hermit-like habits while airborne, expecting people to provide enough personal information to allow them to be grouped together - perhaps to tailor in-flight retail, or create industry-specific networking zones - could prove ambitious.
While the use of personal information might not sit comfortably with everyone, the leveraging of social media by airlines is just beginning. Malaysia Airlines' brand new MHbuddy service page allows passengers to book a flight, check-in, and share the resulting travel plans (privacy settings allowing) from within Facebook. It's possible to make group bookings with friends, select a preferred seat from a map, and see the seat numbers of friends on the same flight as you.
'It's important we make the travel experience easy at every customer touch point,' says Dato' Mohd Salleh Ahmad Tabrani, Malaysia Airlines' executive vice-president of customer experience.
KLM is also experimenting. The airline's Meet & Seat service, launched in February, lets passengers see who else will be on board via their Facebook or LinkedIn accounts, but can control exactly which personal information is available to others. 'Meet & Seat is primarily used by business travellers for networking,' says Erik Varwijk, KLM's managing director. 'Following its success during the first month, we're seeing a demand for the service on new routes.'
Using open, public third-party platforms such as Facebook and Twitter does have its downside. It can magnify negative feedback from fliers. 'The use of social media has enabled airlines to be visible in real time, but because they're such public channels dirty laundry can be aired quickly,' says Wong.
If intelligent seating is a work in progress, a great way for frequent fliers to embrace digital travel is through apps and websites such as Dopplr, TravelMuse, TripSay and TripIt. The latter is a thing of wonder, linking into your e-mail account to dredge out travel-related information - typically confirmation e-mails and e-tickets from airlines, although it works with trains, hotels and rental cars, too - to build an instant itinerary accessible online, on a smartphone, Facebook profile or an online calendar.
With links to maps, weather data and local attractions in your destinations, the only thing TripIt doesn't do is find out who you're sitting next to. These early experiments may be embraced or ignored by frequent fliers, but there's no doubt that social media is now well and truly up in the air.