Social seating: First airlines, then everything else

Social seating: First airlines, then everything else

An exclusive look at one social-seating system that hopes to completely change how we travel and go out
KLM social seating
"I'll be your friend. But only for the next eight hours."

You can escape your country, but you cannot escape Facebook.

This year the social networking site could pass 1 billion users, and if certain members in the travel industry have their way, many of them will be using the network while they book their flights.

Already KLM and Malaysia Airlines are using Facebook to show if any of your friends are on board -- you can then select a seat next to them.

But they are both proprietary systems, unavailable to other airlines. Now, Eran Savir, the 37-year-old CEO and co-founder of SeatID, plans to make so-called “social seating” a natural feature of ticket purchases across the whole airline sector.

His brainchild, which he runs out of Israel with CTO David Rachamim, 36, and plans to launch around September this year, is the latest of the next-gen social-seating systems to be made available to any airline that wants it, and we’ve been given an exclusive first look at how it works. (Scroll down)

Moreover, Savir says flights are just the first step in a plan he has to completely change how we travel and go out.

MHBuddy social seatingMalaysia Airlines' MHbuddy -- 30,000 users and counting.“Trains, sport events, music events, theaters -- everywhere where people book a seat, social seating can be relevant,” he says.

Then again, he would say that.

As of yet SeatID has zero confirmed partners, despite Savir meeting with “over 20 airlines so far, from America (North and South), Europe, Asia and the Middle East, high-end and low-cost carriers. We plan to eventually speak with all the airlines.”

He’s even willing to offer it to clients for free for the first year, but not everyone is taken by the notion.

“Personally I think it’s a horrendous idea. I don’t think I want people to know where I’m sitting -- it just seems like a bit of a gimmick,” says one airline insider in Hong Kong.

Have your say: Tell us in the comments if you'd use social seating when booking your next flight

Nevertheless, it takes a brave punter to write off anything with the word “social” in it these days, and both KLM and Malaysia Airlines say they’ve had success with their own systems.

Some 30,000 people use Malaysia Airlines’ MHbuddy system on a monthly basis according to Mohd Hisham Saleh, head of social media and innovation. “And it’s growing at a steady rate,” he adds. “We have built a pool of loyal users. Seventy percent of MHbuddy users are repeat customers.”

KLM’s Meet & Seat system has convinced 2,200 people to share their profiles, and its launch just last week across intercontinental flights too should see that increase “exponentially” according to Lisette Ebeling-Koning in the press office.

The fact that one of the world’s biggest booking engines, Ticketmaster, has joined the world of social seating also suggests it’s no fad.

How it works

So how will SeatID work, come September?

First up, you sign in with Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn. Note that this is an opt-in system -- if you don’t want to be a social flier, you can book as normal.facebook travelSeatID's log in screen.

Once inside, your contacts across all three of these social networks are made available to the system -- though you can also change this in the settings, choosing friends on Facebook or friends of friends too, for example.

Then you search for flights. This is the first point at which the SeatID algorithm kicks in -- and differs to existing systems in that it shows you contacts across various flights, not just on a single flight.  

Savir says this stage could also be a money earner for airlines, as it also shows who is sitting in which class. See someone you like in Business and you may be tempted to upgrade, for example.seatID social seatingSee who's on which flights.

Once you’ve selected your flight, you then select your seat, with SeatID’s algorithm showing where your connections are sitting.

Also on CNNGo: Website reconnects fliers who forgot to swap numbers

social seating flightsScan for cuties, select a seat next to them.

The clever part is this -- once you’ve selected a seat, SeatID will remember the qualities of the person you chose to sit next to. The next time you use SeatID to book a flight, even if it’s on a different airline, it will suggest similar people.

“Say you sit next to John, who likes chess, jazz music and sports,” says Savir. “The algorithm records this data and uses it to promote similar passengers in the future.”

It also records whom you don’t like to sit next to -- if there are 10 co-workers on your flight but you opt not to sit next to one, SeatID will assume you don’t like your colleagues and they will score lower when it comes to displaying potentially interesting seatmates.

It also pulls information from your own profile and passes it to the airline. “Airlines big on customer service really like this. We can tell them seat 18A has a birthday, for example, and they can respond.”

Privacy problems?

If this all sounds a little too much like Big Brother in the sky, Savir’s argument is that all this information is already available anyway.

If you’ve “liked” an airline’s Facebook page, and millions have, they already know all about you. These social seating systems just tell them where you’re sitting, too.

Will you have to pay? That’s up to each carrier. Savir says one option could be to charge users US$1-2 for access to the system. But he would prefer airlines to offer it for free, at least initially.

Ultimately, it will never be a catchall development, he admits. “If we get 5 percent of people who book online at the start that will be a start. In five years time we may get 10-20 percent of online bookers on the system.”

But in the end it all depends on how the airlines view it -- and for some, it doesn’t fit. “We don't see our passengers asking for this (in fact quite the opposite) so no plans to trial this at the moment,” says Ali Bullock, Cathay Pacific’s digital and social media manager. “It’s got to be in the interest of the passengers, and we feel there are privacy issues surrounding the idea of social seating.”

For those fliers who opt in however, this could make flight choices less about the airline you’re flying with, more about the people.

Social seating systems so far

SeatID -- Shows Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn contacts at both the flight and seating level.

Satisfly -- You choose your mood, the airline chooses your seatmates for you.

Planely -- Connects you with people in the same airport or on the same flight, so you can choose to meet up.

Facebelt -- Connects you with other Facebook users on flights.

Meet & Seat -- KLM’s seat selection system using Facebook and LinkedIn.

MHbuddy -- Malaysia Airlines’ flight booking and seat selection system using Facebook.

As senior producer for CNN Travel, James commissions stories, writes for, edits and manages the homepage of the site. 

Follow his Twitterthing here: @jedurston

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