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What the airline knows about the guy in seat 14C

The Wall Street Journal. logo The Wall Street Journal. 6/20/2018 Scott McCartney

Your flight attendant wishes you happy birthday. Is that cute or creepy?

Airlines know a lot about you, from date of birth and home address to travel patterns, vacation preferences, beverage purchases and whether your last flight was good or bad. Now the latest generation of hand-held devices used by flight crews has an overhead bin full of information about each passenger.

Carriers are using it in an effort to improve customer service. They can congratulate customers on reaching 3 million lifetime miles or toast a couple’s wedding anniversary. At some airlines, they can tell if you really paid extra for that extra-legroom seat or are traveling on a restricted basic economy ticket. Someday soon it may be, “Having the usual vodka tonic tonight, Scott?”

Right now, airlines are trying to figure out when personalized interactions could be considered invasive, amid growing concerns about how companies like Facebook and others are using personal data. While many travelers are pleased to see their loyalty acknowledged, they’d all rather have upgrades. And plenty of others prefer a bit of anonymity once they get on an airplane and leave town.

United rolled out a new app to its flight attendants earlier this year with so much information about people, the airline has been reluctant to turn on all the functionality. The tool can show flight attendants information on each frequent flier’s five previous flights—green if it was a good flight, yellow or red if something went wrong, like a delay. But United is worried some customers might consider that stalking.

“There’s a point where you don’t want to make people feel like, ‘Gee they know everything about me and they’re tracking everything I do,’ ” says John Slater, United’s senior vice president of inflight services.

Personal milestones like birthdays are left to the judgment of flight attendants. They can decide whether they think a customer would appreciate the recognition or recoil, he says.

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The information is added to phones and tablets used to charge customers for food and beverage purchases. The devices can give flight attendants real-time information on tight flight connections for passengers, confirm whether a wheelchair has been ordered for a customer and help keep track of unaccompanied minors.

Many now allow flight attendants to offer instant compensation for maladies like spilled coffee or broken entertainment screens.

Better service onboard in coach will go to those with higher status. Top-tier frequent fliers, as well as those with special needs, will get more personalized attention, airlines say.

Carriers say they don’t flag “problem” passengers—perhaps frequent complainers or people involved in confrontations in the past. Airlines do ban people from their flights for altercations or abuses, and the Transportation Security Administration flags problem travelers.

But airlines are making it easier for flight crews to report problems with passengers. Instead of paperwork completed after a trip, American Airlines’ third-generation handhelds can submit all kinds of reports, from catering goofs to onboard incidents, says Jill Surdek, vice president for flight service.

Alaska Airlines says that earlier this month it gave its flight attendants an app on their hand-held devices specifically to report sexual harassment, making it quicker and easier to alert the company to problem passengers. Alaska has had several high-profile issues involving passengers accused of harassing flight attendants, as well as a case of a passenger accused of harassing another passenger.

The airline investigates every situation, says Andy Schneider, Alaska’s vice president of people, and decides whether to take action, including banning someone from flights either temporarily or permanently.

United’s new system has a color-coded seat map showing status—a black seat is a Global Services frequent flier, United’s top tier. The seat map has icons for wheelchairs and lap children. A seat with a dog face means the customer has a pet onboard. Million-mileage levels are also depicted—seat 7C has “3M” on it for 3 million miles.

Connecting flight information can be shown. Green seats have good connections, yellow seats have connections that could be in jeopardy and red is reserved for very tight connections.

Letting flight attendants know something about each passenger “allows them to engage with customers in a meaningful way,” United’s Mr. Slater says.

JetBlue uses tablets mounted on the top of beverage-service carts so flight attendants get a hands-free visual picture of who’s who. “The ability for crew members to view a customer’s name is huge, especially in coach,” says Chris McCloskey, JetBlue’s director of inflight experience.

The seat map will show a birthday cake in a celebrant’s seat. Flight attendants can offer a complimentary buy-onboard product or a card signed by the crew.

More personalization is coming. One goal: tracking onboard purchases. If a customer orders the same drink repeatedly, offer the usual.

“There is definitely an opportunity for us to leverage the data that we have on customers a little bit more,” Mr. McCloskey says. At the same time, the airline is analyzing how far it can go.

Airlines acknowledge the devices have made the job more complex for flight attendants. Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants union, says the devices can reduce situational awareness. If flight attendants have to study the screen to correctly recognize each customer, they may not be spending as much time staying alert to what’s going on the cabin.

She says flight attendants generally like these new tools because they let them do their jobs more effectively.

Still, Ms. Nelson says, “I’m a little shocked there hasn’t been more backlash. I think the public has generally decided they like the personalized service, they like to be able to resolve their issues faster, not have to tell people as much. And they’ve sort of sacrificed their privacy for those conveniences.”

Related video: What to know before booking a flight

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