Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Purchasing from my airline seat? Not exactly.

Pan-Am Flight attendant, 1970 by John Atherton (gbaku) used under a Creative Commons License

I began reading a Riverside Press-Enterprise article entitled "Sky Shopping" and got all excited. Unfortunately, my excitement was a little premature.

You see, the vision that popped into my head when I read the headline was of a personal screen at my seat from which I could buy useless items at will. I have previously written (in my Empoprise-NTN blog about NTN Buzztime trivia games) about the ability to play trivia from your seat on Delta Airlines flights (note: the Delta system is not connected with NTN Buzztime). So if you can play trivia, why not buy things? It would also be green, since you could do away with the printed SkyMall magazines.

So this was the image in my mind as I began to read the Press-Enterprise article. And the opening paragraph certainly supported my mental image:

Air passengers soon could shop, reserve theater and theme park tickets and purchase vouchers for taxis or trains -- all from their airplane seats.

The article then describes the GuestLogix product OnTouch. But I was a little puzzled when I saw this statement:

The Toronto-based company said its "transaction platform" currently serves more than 90 percent of U.S. air passenger trips and 50 percent of European trips.

Huh? I thought to myself. I have NOT seen personal screens on anywhere near 90% of my flights. 9% maybe, but not 90%. But I kept on reading, and I realized that my mental picture was woefully inadequate:

Flight attendants currently swipe credit and debit cards on GuestLogix's hand-held devices to charge passengers' food and drink purchases.

With OnTouch, the flight attendant would enter the code to purchase an item from the SkyMall catalog or for a show on Broadway.

To buy SkyMall's $59.95 noise-canceling headphones, for example, the passenger provides a credit or debit card and shipping information, and the item is delivered to their home, office or destination.

For tickets, the passenger is given a voucher and credit card receipt which are presented at the will-call window.

So instead of my vision, in which I would just punch up the appropriate purchase from the convenience of my airline seat, the true vision is that you have to flag down the flight attendant, in between his/her drink and food runs, and point to the item on page 57 of the printed SkyMall magazine and say that you want to buy that.

This does not strike me as a wonderfully efficient system, and it's no surprise that the flight attendant unions aren't that hot on the idea either.

Flight attendants "are safety professionals, not sales people," said Corey Caldwell, spokeswoman for the Association of Flight Attendants that represents members working for 20 airlines....

Laura Glading, president of the Association of Professional Flight Attendants, which represent 19,000 American Airlines flight attendants, said the group is not taking a vehement stand against the idea. "We're saying it has to be negotiated," she said.

Actually, the underlying issue is money. If flight attendants ARE going to be used as salespeople, then they want to negotiate the commission that they will receive.

It's too bad that the economics don't allow for this to be a way to get personal screens on all of the airlines, so that we can place our own orders without the middleman/middlewoman. But this is a much more expensive proposition than just throwing a few credit card readers on to a flight.
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