Beware of Crew Members With iPads: British Airways Googles VIPs

British Airways really wants to get to know its customers.


So much so that the airline has dispatched crew members with about 2,000 Apple iPads to look up the Google images of a select group of VIP customers, much as someone would do before a blind date.

"We just want to be able to recognize them," says Simon Talling-Smith, executive vice president of the Americas for British Airways.

Googling its most important frequent fliers is part of a larger program British Airways launched earlier this year called "Know Me." The airline has gathered the information it has on all its frequent fliers into a database that sends messages to crew members and ground staff. They then use that information, which can include flight history and preferences, to deliver more personalized service.

So if you've finally scored a seat in business class, a flight attendant will show you how to use the entertainment system even before you start fumbling with the remote. Or if you've reached higher status in the frequent-flier club and get access to the club lounge, the gate agent will show you exactly how to get there.

"We put this program together so we can demonstrate to frequent customers that we do know them and can anticipate their needs and deliver the service they expect," says Talling-Smith.

Many airlines offer personalized services to frequent fliers. But analysts say British Airways is taking an unusual approach for an airline.

"It's really not different than what hotels do," says George Novak, a director at InterVistas, a travel consulting firm.

Some frequent fliers cringe at the thought of being Googled before a flight.

Steve Carlson of Grand Rapids, Mich., who hasn't flown British Airways under the new program, called it "creepy if you don't sign up for and consent to it."

Talling-Smith says the airline uses only information that fliers have voluntarily given out and that none of it is made public. Crew members are looking at your photo and nothing more.

But Steve Rima of Grand Junction, Colo., appreciates any efforts to treat customers better. On a Delta flight from England last week, he says, a crew member personally thanked him for his business. "It's not much, really, but it's nice to know that someone actually appreciates their most frequent flier," he says.