Airline allows travelers to choose seatmates using online profiles

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.

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