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Selecting a seatmate to make skies friendlier


PARIS » 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, Jarvis resorted to the road warrior’s tried-and-true 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 program 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 a few years ago by some airlines — including Air France, Virgin Atlantic and Lufthansa — 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 Erik Varwijk, a managing director in charge of passenger business at KLM. "But the technology just wasn’t available."

Relative latecomers to the social media party, airlines are quickly becoming sophisticated users of online networks, not only as marketing tools, but as a low-cost way to learn more about their customers and their preferences. With Facebook alone claiming nearly 500 million daily active users — more than 60 times the 8 million people who fly each day — KLM and others are betting that many of them would be willing to share their profiles in exchange, say, for 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.

Planely, a Danish startup, allows registered users who submit their itineraries to view the Facebook and LinkedIn profiles of others who will be on flights with them. Since it began in late 2010, Planely has connected more than 1,500 travelers, according to its chief executive, Nick Martin.

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 like 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 travelers with confirmed reservations 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; an Italian chemical engineer fluent in Dutch, English, Spanish and Portuguese; 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.

Dan Nainan, a comedian from New York, 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, who said 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.

Kaamna Bhojwani-Dhawan, the founder of a website for parents traveling 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 Bhojwani-Dhawan, 32, who recently traveled from San Francisco to India and Dubai with her 3-year-old son and 6-month-old daughter. "I can’t imagine being very good company, nor am I particularly interested in sitting next to another mom with kids so that we can compare notes."

Analysts conceded that "social seating" was likely to appeal more to business travelers 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 startup guy who talks his ear off for four hours," Jarvis said.

Varwijk of KLM said his airline was not yet actively promoting the seating program, 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.

Analysts noted that KLM has a reputation for using social media in innovative ways. In 2010, for example, the airline teamed up with a Dutch filmmaker who successfully used Twitter to get 350 people to book seats on a direct flight to Miami — a destination KLM did normally not serve — to attend a music festival. Last year, it invited its 1 million Facebook fans to convert their profile photos into traditional Delftware-style images. The carrier selected 4,000 of the photos and used them to adorn a Boeing 777.

"KLM really sees social media as a way to tap into a different part of their customers’ lives," said Henry H. Harteveldt, a travel industry analyst and a founder of Atmosphere Research Group in San Francisco. "They want to be viewed as more than just a flying piece of metal."

The seating program’s value could also extend beyond pure public relations. "This will give them great insights when they eventually aggregate the passenger data behind it," he said.

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

For fees of $6 to $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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