Airlines Have Oodles Of Your Personal Info, But Are They Selling It?

Used to be that airlines’ frequent flier programs really just kept track of how many miles or points you’d earned. Those days are gone, as carriers are able to collect and track all manner of data about passengers, data that could be very valuable if sold to third parties. Question is — are they selling it or not?

Forbes’ Adam Tanner tried to find out whether United Airlines, the nation’s largest carrier, is cashing in on the gold mine of information that is its MileagePlus frequent flier programs.

To start, the United privacy policy states:
“United may process your information or combine it with other information that we have about you or that is publicly available… In addition, United may share this information with third parties for the purpose of providing you with services, information or promotional opportunities that may be of interest to you.”

That would seem to indicate that “Yes, we do sell your info,” but an actual rep for the airline hedged when confronted with this question.

“As a matter of course our list is not available to marketers in general, no,” he told Tanner. “We are very careful with customer data. It is difficult to overstress that.”

Notice the “in general” qualifier, along with the attempt to deflect the question from whether or not the airline sells data to the unasked question of how well it protects data. The rep also says that “our list” is not available to marketers, implying that the airline doesn’t sell the actual list of its MileagePlus account holders, but maybe sells information about those members.

“We have marketing partnerships with companies that participate in our loyalty program, for example,” the rep clarified after being pressed. “And if Marriott is doing an offer that says stay at Marriott and earn MileagePlus miles then Marriott has the ability to target that offer to MileagePlus members.”

These sorts of “marketing partnerships” are a common way for businesses to make money off a customer without explicitly selling that customer’s information. Such an arrangement allows the business to claim it respects customer privacy while also using that data to make money. It’s up to each consumer to decide whether this crosses an ethical line.