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Travel & Holiday

Book a seatmate

KLM's Meet And Seat lets passengers pick whom they want to sit with after viewing Facebook profiles
The Straits Times - February 28, 2012
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Book a seatmate Passengers no longer have to wear headphones to avoid unwanted conversations with their seatmates by picking one with a common interest on KLM flights. --PHOTO: ST FILE

On his eight-hour flight to New York from Switzerland last month, Jeff Jarvis, a well-known blogger and journalism professor, found himself seated next to a woman eager to discuss the finer points of management theory.

'Normally, it would have been fine to chat but I had work to do,' he said. When, after a while, the conversation failed to find a natural end, he resorted to the road warrior's tried-and-tested trick: He donned his headphones.

Jarvis, whose book Public Parts argues about the virtues of engaging with people online, conceded that such experiences made him wary about doing the same in an airplane setting.

'So often we do sit next to utter strangers,' he said. 'And the lottery does not have great odds.'

But what if those odds could be improved with access to the information passengers already share about themselves online?

This month, Dutch carrier KLM began testing a service it calls Meet And Seat, allowing ticket-holders to upload details from their Facebook or LinkedIn profiles and use the data to choose seatmates. The concept is a step beyond the not always successful efforts by some airlines a few years ago to build 'walled' social networks out of their existing frequent flier memberships.

'For at least 10 years, there has been this question about serendipity and whether you could improve the chances of meeting someone interesting onboard,' said Mr Erik Varwijk, managing director in charge of passenger business at KLM.

Relative latecomers to the social media party, airlines are quickly becoming sophisticated users of online networks, not only as marketing tools, but also as a low-cost way to learn more about their customers and their preferences.

With Facebook alone claiming nearly 500 million active users daily - more than 60 times the eight million people who fly each day - KLM and others are betting that many of them would be willing to share their profiles in exchange for, say, a chance to meet someone with a common interest or who might be going to the same event.

The idea is catching on. Last year, Malaysia Airlines introduced MHBuddy, an application that allows users who book and check-in via the carrier's Facebook page to see whether any of their 'friends' will be on the same flight or in their destination city at the same time. The platform, which claims 3,000 monthly active users, also enables friends to select seats together.

And airlines are not the only ones betting on the concept.

Satisfly, based in Hong Kong, allows users to submit profile information as well as their flight moods - whether they would prefer to talk shop or chat casually - and other details such as languages spoken and preferences about potential seatmates. The information is then shared with its airline partners, which incorporate the data into their own seat- assignment platforms.

KLM's service is available only to travellers with confirmed reservations and who are willing to connect their social profiles to their booking.

After selecting the amount of personal information they wish to share, passengers are presented with seat maps that show where others who have also shared their profiles are seated. You can then reserve the seat next to anyone who seems interesting, provided it is available, and that person will receive a message with your profile details.

On a flight from Amsterdam to Sao Paulo this week, for example, you could have chosen the director of a British answering service, who has a passion for reggae and jazz, or a Norwegian alternative-rock fan en route to visit family in Argentina.

While it is not possible to 'reject' a person who has chosen to sit with you, you can select another seat as long as two days before the flight. Those feeling awkward about moving can delete their data and select new seats using the standard - anonymous - online platform.

New York comedian Dan Nainan said he was eager to try it out. 'If people are able to choose whom they sit next to, they're more than likely going to be friendly and outgoing and easy to talk to,' said Nainan, 30. He added that he had no reservations about making his personal data available to fellow passengers.

'I've met some wonderful people on airplanes and made some great connections. I would love to be able to see the selection of people that I could potentially sit next to.'

But not everyone is enthusiastic.

Ms Kaamna Bhojwani-Dhawan, founder of a website for parents travelling with young children, said she found the trend 'puzzling'. 'My goal is to get through the flight without losing my mind or either of my children,' said Ms Bhojwani-Dhawan, 32, who recently travelled from San Francisco to India and Dubai with her three-year-old son and six-month-old daughter.

Analysts conceded that 'social seating' was likely to appeal more to business travellers en route to trade shows or backpackers looking for travel companions - although even those situations present potential pitfalls. 'Pity the poor venture capitalist who gets seated with the start-up guy who talks his ear off for four hours,' Jarvis said.

Mr Varwijk of KLM said his airline was not yet actively promoting the seating service, which is being offered initially only on flights between Amsterdam and New York and San Francisco and Sao Paulo.

Only about 200 passengers have participated so far, he said, but barring any major hiccups, the airline hopes to roll out the service - which can be arranged from 48 hours to 90 days in advance of a flight - on all of its intercontinental flights by spring.

The airline, a member of the SkyTeam alliance, also plans to share feedback from the trial with its partners, which could choose to offer the service as well.

Some airlines are taking the opposite tack and catering to passengers who just want to buckle up and be left alone.

For fees of US$6 (S$7.50) to US$60, Air New Zealand, AirAsia X in Malaysia and Vueling in Spain, for example, let passengers request empty seats next to theirs. If a flight turns out to be full, the extra charge is refunded.



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