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26 Feb, 2007

“Big Brother” Influence in Travel Grows Alongside Technology

The February 2006 release of yet another forecast about the growing impact of technology in “bridging the gap between travel providers and consumers” has further heightened concern about privacy and potential misuse of very personal information by private companies.

Entitled “Future Traveller Tribes 2020”, the report was commissioned by the GDS Amadeus. It purports to identify for the first time “the major social, geopolitical, economic, consumer and technology trends that will determine who will be travelling in the future.”

Significant research and input from travel, airline and technology experts contributed to the report which concludes, in essence, that technologies must be ‘humanised’ across the journey – including digital personal identities, integrated information systems and new communications technologies – if airlines are to meet personal needs.

However, the marketing jargon about “meeting customer expectations” and “catering to individual needs” obscures serious questions about who knows how much about every travelling individual, what right they have to that information, what they can do with it and even more important, what are the rights of the individual travellers in seeking to know precisely how that information is being used.

There is little doubt that technology has revolutionised the travel industry, reducing the role of the travel agent and facilitating the growth of low cost airlines. It also has the potential to affect the survival of global distribution systems, which drive the booking process behind the scenes.

Hence, GDSs are very keen to see how they can come up with various “solutions” to ensure their own relevance in the booking process and, by extension, their survival. In September 2006, Amadeus’ competitor GDS, Abacus, did another survey about the future of the travel agent.

The Amadeus study sought to identify the critical groups of travellers over the next 5-10 years. It said that “technology must increasingly respond intuitively to people’s individual needs throughout their journey.

“This concept, that is referred to as the ‘humanisation of technology’, will be seen in key development areas such as trusted digital identities, integrated information systems, real-time/geo-relevant information and new communications technologies.”

Frederic Spagnou, Vice President, Airline Business Group, Amadeus, was quoted as saying that Amadeus was committed to “understanding what travellers need and demand, both now and into the future” so that it could “most effectively deliver new services.”

“The humanisation of technology idea will hopefully result in a more simplified, intuitive and personal journey for all,” he said, while expressing a desire to see the report “stimulate discussion across the industry about the future of travel.”

The discussion that is long overdue is about how much technology companies and travel providers should know about individual travellers as part of the effort to provide them with tailor-made and customised services, including marketing messages and service delivery.

The study says that “the humanisation of technology, which will reinforce ease of use and responsiveness, will be seen throughout the entire travel process from booking, through check-in, in-flight and at baggage collection.

“Potential technology developments that support the concept of humanisation include: in the near term, SIM card identification, personalised destination information, mobile travel updates, digital concierges; and, in the longer term, digital memories, 3-D glasses, RFID for both people and baggage and humanoid check-in kiosks.

Effectively, all this is another nail in the coffin of individual privacy.

Add to that the advent of smart cards, biometric passports, finger-printing, profiling plus information that is embedded in the credit-card and loyalty programmes, and it becomes clear that too much is known by third parties about every working individual.

While governments may have some right to this information in the interests of public security, for private companies to have it is another matter, especially if they change ownership, as many of them invariably do whenever they encounter financial difficulties.

The travel industry, which is becoming increasingly beholden to the power of the big companies, does little to stimulate debate, especially when it involves addressing consumer interests.

Many international travel industry associations are becoming mere conduits for the products and services of the major companies who pay huge amounts in membership fees and whom they are then loathe to upset by asking awkward questions or stimulating the wrong kind of debate.

Consumer associations have not yet begun to delve seriously into these issues either.

At the moment, the rush is simply to extract every inch of marketing mileage from that information. Last January, the United Federation of Travel Agents Associations (UFTAA) launched a “Travel Industry Pass”, known as a TIP-Card, for travel agents.

The card will serve as an industry identification and includes a photo and personal details on a magnetic strip. According to UFTAA, “it will serve as a professional ID to gain benefits from various suppliers within the travel and tourism industry.”

In the US, after years of complaints by the travel industry and civil rights groups, the US Department of Homeland Security moved last month to address the complaints of travellers who feel they have been unfairly singled out for security checks “based on race, disability, religion, gender, ethnicity or national origin.”

In an announcement posted on its website on February 21, 2007, the DHS said it was launching the Traveler Redress Inquiry Program (DHS TRIP) to help travellers “seek redress and resolve possible watch list misidentification issues with any of the department’s component agencies” by logging on to https://dhs.gov/trip .

This applies to “Individuals who feel they have been mistakenly denied boarding, unfairly or incorrectly delayed without reason at border points of entry, or identified for additional screenings.”

Individuals can also complain if they feel they have been “unfairly detained during your travel experience or unfairly denied entry into the United States”, or if a “ticket agent ‘called someone’ before handing you a boarding pass,” or “you believe the U.S. Government’s record of your personal information is inaccurate or has been misused.”

Big Brother is becoming entrenched in the travel & tourism industry Big Time. As always, the issue will only be taken seriously after it does some serious damage.

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