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In-flight social gifting makes skies friendlier

Harriet Baskas, Special to CNBC
Saturday, 21 Dec 2013 | 11:00 AM ET

In a move to make flying a bit more friendly—and to raise revenues—airlines are bringing social media-style giving to the skies.

This week Southwest Airlines introduced a Facebook option that enables people to pool funds to buy a Southwest gift card for a friend or family member.

"It allows a group to come together to give a gift as a thank you or as congratulations for a wedding, a birthday or a major life milestone," said Southwest spokesman Dan Landson.

(Read more: The best tricks for first-class holiday air travel)

In April, Virgin America introduced an in-flight, seat-to-seat drink and snack delivery program that Virgin Group founder Richard Branson described as a way passengers might increase their chances of "deplaning with a plus one."

And earlier this month social media-savvy KLM introduced an option that expands on the Dutch airline popular program of surprising its passengers with personalized gifts.

Source: KLM

The new KLM Wannagives lets people prepurchase gifts—from chocolate and perfume to jewelry or a Delft Blue singing, floating egg-timer—that are delivered by crew members to a passenger during a flight.

"The strength of Wannagives lies not in the fact that we give something extra to our customers, but that we enable people to give each other something special," KLM's social business manager Lonneke Verbiezen wrote in a blog post introducing the program.

It's also a way for the airline and other companies to increase retail sales.

"There's always a commercial component to these efforts, as there should be. This is business," said Henry Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst with Hudson Crossing.

(Read more: Airport personal shoppers goose spending)

"Airlines are becoming much more entrepreneurial and innovative when it comes to securing additional revenues from passengers, be it via preordering duty free or investing in digital platforms for on-board retail," said Raymond Kollau of Airlinetrends.com. "KLM's Wannagives is a good example of airlines' newly found retailing mind-set."

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Items made available as Wannagives are drawn from KLM's current online shop, with a few products added. Since the program's Dec. 9 rollout, Champagne with a crystal glass and Godiva chocolates are the most ordered items, said KLM spokesman Koen van Zijl.

"We think the service is a win-win for both our passengers and for the company," van Zijl said. "We were asked often if it is possible to surprise a passenger on board, and Wannagives now makes this happen. And sure, we aim to increase in-flight sales."

(Read more: Cuts in air service stifling cities)

Looking forward to 2014, industry experts expect the social gifting trend to continue.

"In the digital world we live in, everyone craves more personal connection," said Brian Erke, CEO and co-founder of social gifting site Gratafy. "This new adventure in simple yet personal gifting offers a sense of camaraderie and the ability to be there for someone, even when you can't actually be there."

—By Harriet Baskas, special to CNBC.com. Baskas is the author of seven books, including "Hidden Treasures: What Museums Can't or Won't Show You," and the Stuck at the Airport blog. Follow her on Twitter at @hbaskas.

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