Airbus Testing New System to Collect Data on Everything From Bathroom Breaks to Beer Preference

Image: Airbus

Your flight could soon be keeping tabs on everything from your preferences for in-flight snacks to the length of your bathroom trips.

Airbus announced this week that it’s started testing a new system to more closely monitor the in-flight experience—including bathroom breaks and passenger preferences—a process that will help streamline service for flight crew and offer a “more personalized travel experience” to travelers. The so-called Airspace Connected Experience will allow passengers to remote order food and beverages and set preferred seat positions, for example, as well as see customized entertainment and ads, among other in-flight offerings.

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Collecting data about everything from what passengers prefer to eat to what they like to shop for or watch while in-flight creates huge revenue opportunities for airlines. Digitizing the in-flight experience is also intended to improve efficiency, cut costs, and build a wealth of data about flight operations.

Stand-out features of the tracking system include monitoring everything from whether a passenger’s seat belt is fastened—a task that’s traditionally performed by human flight attendants—with green or red signals, according to Bloomberg, to the time a passenger spends in the lavatory. A spokesperson for Airbus told Gizmodo by email that the belt-sensor system will allow flight crew to notify an unbuckled passenger to do so or to avoid disturbing a sleeping passenger whose belt is already fastened.

As for its lavatory-tracking, Airbus is also testing camera systems outside lavatories to keep track of passenger wait times and avoid servicing hold-ups. A spokesperson told Gizmodo by email that this system “will help airlines to provide their passengers with the right amount of [lavatory] facilities/amenities that they need on board, especially by knowing the level of demand during peak times. The sensors could also alert cabin crew if somebody has been locked inside the lav for a very long time—who could be ill or need assistance.”

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Airbus’s rep said that the lavatory cameras would be tasked with tracking things like how many people were waiting in line and at what times, as well as how fast the line shuffles through. But the company did not respond to further questioning about how that blurring system would work. Instead, it pointed to an image of the platform published at Condé Nast Traveler depicting blurred faces that seems to raise more questions than it answers.

In an April press release, Airbus said that in addition to data about passengers being made available to the flight crew, “it is also planned that consolidated information could also be uploaded to the Skywise cloud for subsequent trend analytics.” (Skywise is the Airbus-developed open data platform.) Additionally, in this week’s release, Airbus claimed that passengers would receive customized experiences “specifically targeted to the individual needs and preferences, based on the available data” as well as “a tailor-made [in-flight entertainment] offer.”

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However, when reached for comment about what information might be stored, the Airbus spokesperson told Gizmodo in a response relating to seat belt sensors and lavatory tracking that for “all these cases however, no passenger is ‘tracked’ and their identity or personal information are not stored.” Asked whether the system would track things like dietary preferences or entertainment and ads, the spokesperson responded: “No. Skywise is for equipment trend/reliability analytics. It does not track passengers.”

Asked whether Airbus would monetize any collected data, the spokesperson provided a somewhat perplexing response:

Regarding “monetizing” data, the answer ‘no’.

Knowing what’s cooking in the oven, or sensing how many pax are queuing outside a loo isn’t something that would or could be monetized. Rather that kind of data simply allows the airlines operate a more efficient service, and make sure the passengers have everything they need – from delivering the right meals, to having enough loos on the plane, especially at peak times.

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Great! Maybe. But as far as the implication that in-flight data couldn’t be monetized goes, that’s simply not true. There’s every reason to believe that passengers’ activities on a flight would provide monetizable data that could be valuable to other airlines, aircraft manufacturers, credit card companies, and god knows who else.

When asked if it could provide a copy of the terms of service that passengers would sign before flying on an aircraft outfitted with the system, AirBus explained that those documents would be handled by the individual airlines after testing is complete. So, unfortunately, there’s no way to get a handle on what rights you’ll be giving away before this system makes its way to a diffuse set of airlines with slightly different agreements buried among countless pages.

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Let’s recap here: The AirBus system tracks numerous activities that passengers engage in while on a flight (and that list of activities can certainly get bigger), but according to AirBus it does not, I repeat, does not “track passengers.” If that kind of hairsplitting and lack of forthright communication makes you feel good about getting on an aircraft weighing hundreds of tonnes hurtling through the sky at hundreds of kilometers per hour, then welcome aboard. We hope you enjoy flying the friendly skies of the data future and everything works out better than it did when we thought it was no big deal to let the stupid social networks collect every bit of data possible.

Airbus said it’s currently testing the system aboard its A350-900 Flight Lab aircraft. Bloomberg further reported that the company “plans to introduce it on the A321 family in 2021, followed by the larger, two-aisle A350 series two years later.”

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Tracking things like whether all seat belts are buckled ahead of take-off and keeping track of which lavatories need to be restocked ahead of time will no doubt give flight crew a leg up on efficiency. But, at the same time, without a clearer idea of how that data is being used, the Connected Experience raises a lot of privacy questions. Questions like: Do we really want to be handing over buckets of personal data each time we fly? Is this really necessary? Is the biometric screening seriously not enough?

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