Editorial: Hey, United Airlines, no targeted ads at 30,000 feet, please


Over the past few years, American Airlines steadily removed seat-back screens from almost all of its domestic fleet. The airline’s rationale was that people now bring their own screens wherever they may roam, so there’s no reason to add the cost and weight of providing them when they won’t be missed. We disagree, especially when it comes to long flights, but understand the argument.

Arch-competitor United Airlines went a different way after the pandemic, retaining those screens and upgrading the entertainment you can watch on them. Delta Air Lines did much the same. Most low-cost carriers aren’t in this business, but United says it now has 100,000 screens across its fleet.

Now the Chicago-based airline has discovered a happy consequence of its decision: an ability to target ads, screen by screen, to whoever happens to be sitting in front of them.

So if there’s a business traveler who enjoys going abroad in seat 4B, ads could show her pictures of the beach in Aruba. If that’s a senior citizen in 11C, he might like to know about luxury retirement communities. And if that’s a little kid in 11B, a candidate for screaming and fidgeting all the way to Orlando, he could be shown cool toys available at the airport when he arrives.

“Kinective Media by United Airlines is the only media network that uses insights from travel behaviors to connect customers to personalized advertising, experiences and offers from leading brands,” United said in a creepy news release Friday. The airline said a “formal commercial launch” was planned for the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, a fancy name for an advertising conference, slated for the French Riviera next week.

There was more: “The airline expects its MileagePlus members will receive additional value through more personalized and real-time offers and experiences that drive even greater loyalty.”

Hmm. Would the average MileagePlus member see such ads as “additional value”? Questionable.

Railing against precisely targeted advertising can seem Luddite, given the extent to which we already are exposed to it. Sophisticated targeting is how social media companies have (so far) won the battle of the internet over traditional news organizations. Almost everyone has seen Facebook ads appear after joining a particular Facebook group, and Google ads drawing from search results. TikTok doesn’t just know what content you like, but what stuff you are likely to buy.

These platforms only appear to be free. You give up masses of personal information, and that allows them to bypass the wastefulness of old-school advertising, which inevitably reaches the uninterested along with its targets. We may one day rebel against this as a society (and we already see signs of this happening with kids and phones) but for now these practices are ascendant.

Like social media, airlines collect reams of data: United not only knows your origin and destination, which tells the airline plenty all on its own, but how much you paid for your ticket and what kind of credit card you used, offering clues as to your level of disposable income. The airline knows your home address, phone number and date of birth. Assuming you are using your frequent flyer number, now the best way to access TSA PreCheck and other crucial services, United also knows your past travel history. And that’s hardly the full suite of information.

Our specific beef with airlines following social media’s lead is that a good chunk of this information is compulsory for government safety reasons. You cannot travel anonymously; the last name on your ticket must match your ID or you will not be allowed to board. You must also provide your gender and date of birth, unless you want to be subject to egregious secondary searches at security. Other information might be theoretically voluntary, but the airlines have in effect made it obligatory for anyone seeking a stress-free experience. And when it comes to international travel, your passport contains your citizenship and place, as well as date, of birth.

Those who push targeted ads usually trot out the line that consumers find them helpful. Not at 30,000 feet, they don’t. Not when they’re stuck in a middle seat, they don’t.

United says its travelers can opt out of any such use of their data, although that arrangement should be one of opting in, not having to opt out. We went to United’s suggested opt-out page and found very squirrely language for anyone who does not live in one of the handful of states (California, Colorado, Connecticut, Virginia and Utah) with strong data-protection laws: “United will evaluate the request in light of the requirements under the laws of that state if applicable.”

Here’s a suggestion for alternative language: “United will let you sit in anonymous peace if that is what you wish.”

If United or any other airline wants to profit from such shenanigans, then they ought to compensate customers. If travelers can sign up voluntarily for a reduced fare in return for watching seat-back commercials targeted just for them, fair enough. We don’t doubt there would be takers.

But leave the rest of us alone to watch our plane move on that little map, round and round the airport.

Submit a letter, of no more than 400 words, to the editor here or email letters@chicagotribune.com.



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