GateGuru: Bringing Social to the Skies

GateGuru ask the question: Will social seating on flights catch on?

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Photo by: Dmitriy Shironosov

Dmitriy Shironosov

We’ve all been there before: trapped next to the exact wrong person, on a flight across the country -- for 6 hours. Maybe the thought has crossed your mind, “Why can’t I choose whom I sit next to?” Well now you can (sort of).

Say goodbye to the chatty automotive sales guy -- and say hello to a business connection with whom you share 3 mutual Facebook friends. Or perhaps just a quiet companion who shares your desire to be left alone. Or maybe even a new life partner …

New Social Seating Sites
Now, just to take a step back, the idea of allowing travelers to choose their seatmates has been around for a while, but it has never quite "taken off." AirTroductions, started in 2005 by Peter Shankman, was the first pioneer in social seating, but it was never able to scale its user base.

After a few years’ hiatus, we are now starting to see several startups emerge in the social seating/travel arena, including Satisfly and Planely. With Satisfly, you can connect your Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter accounts, and choose one of 4 flight moods: business talk, relax, easy chat or work. Airlines use the Satisfly software and algorithm to seat you next to an ideal seatmate. If you are connected to someone through your networks, you will be able to see their profile and choose to sit with them.

Planely is using a different approach to social travel. Its goal is not to find the perfect seatmate, but rather to give you someone to meet or talk to before or after the flight. After loading your itinerary, the service will let you know if any other Planely users will be in the same area. Integrating with several services (TripIt, Facebook, LinkedIn), it’s a seamless process toward a more social trip. The beauty of these airline agnostic services is that they don’t tie you down to a particular airline.

Airline Social Seating Tools
This takes us to the airlines. The pioneer in social travel is Air France, which first developed Bluenity in 2008 and claims to be the “first community for air travelers” (for Air France’s sake, we’ll ignore the similar site launched by Lufthansa 2 months earlier). Bluenity, similar to Planely, is more of a social travel service versus social seating tool. It allows you to communicate with, and meet people who, also travel with Air France. It’s not designed to have you pick your seat based on whom you want to sit next to on one of their flights.

In early 2011, Malaysia Airlines launched a revolutionary Facebook app named MHBuddy that not only allows you to book and check in to your flight, but also to see if any of your friends are on the flight or if any friends live near your destination. There’s even an overlay of the cabin with seat numbers and pictures of your friends so you can select your preferred seat upon check-in. Malaysia Airlines has been incredibly forward-thinking and innovative in the social media landscape, and we are excited to see them continue to raise the bar.

This takes us to what may be the most ambitious airline social seating initiative to date, launched by Netherlands-based KLM, whose program, Meet & Seat, is designed to allow you to view other passengers’ Facebook or LinkedIn profiles as well as their seat location. After you have booked your flight, you can opt in to connect your Facebook or LinkedIn account, select which details of your profile you choose to share, and also add details about your trip. The service notifies you when new passengers have opted in to share, and you can change your seat as many times as you want. Profile details will not be used for any other purposes besides Meet & Seat, and the data will be removed automatically 48 hours after departure.

The difference between the new Malaysia Air and KLM programs versus the Air France program is that they do not attempt to be their own social networks. Instead, they build on existing ones. We think this is definitely the way to go, as far as social seating is concerned.

Will Social Seating Catch On?
The bigger question, though, is: will “social seating” catch on? We think it is a unique twist on flying, and while it could enhance the experience in the right situation, we don’t see it getting enough traction to become a real feature in the future. The idea of selecting someone to sit next for 3 to 6 hours -- and then feeling compelled to talk to that person for most of the flight -- seems a bit daunting to us.

There is an ideal scenario where you find that perfect seatmate (future business deal, golf buddy or significant other) but that seems like an exception rather than the rule. Call us anti-social, but we will opt for a few hours of peace and quiet (or work).

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