The Popular Airline That May Start Pushing Targeted Ads At You On Your Future Flights

United Airlines has been busy staying in the headlines. It updated the boarding process to shave three minutes off the clock with WILMA (windows first, aisle last) and added self-service snack stations on select flights, showing us that the popular carrier is continuously looking for new ways to enhance the customer experience. If you're one of United Airlines' 148 million passengers who flew on the airline in the last year, your data could soon be sold to advertisers to customize your travel plans.

Though the original article has since been removed by the Wall Street Journal, United Airlines is debating whether to monetize customer data, as reported by numerous media outlets. If rolled out, this could take the form of personalized ads on your United mobile app used to book tickets, access rewards, and check in. You could also spot curated suggestions during your flight, via the screen on the seat in front of you.

How the targeted ads would work

Let's say you're on vacation in Europe at Disneyland Paris. You work your way around the park and then go sightseeing in town. You stay at a hotel connected to your United Airlines points and purchase merchandise that helps earn you frequent flyer miles. During your trip, you might see an advertisement pop up on your mobile device based on your recent data, according to a presentation given to Wall Street Journal employees (as reported by Business Insider).

If you're on a plane, you might see more ads. You would be able to avoid the hassle of scrolling through page after page or movie recommendations, looking for the best flick to pass the time. You could get a few suggestions based on your purchase history and known preferences, similar to how the algorithms on YouTube, Amazon Prime, or Netflix make suggestions. Some readers have been quick to point out that part of the fun of travel is being exposed to things you've never seen — and that includes media. Yet others may enjoy a more curated experience that they'd find on similar platforms.

Consumer data and privacy debates

The short-lived news has prompted mixed reactions online. While Simple Flying pointed out that more profit from new revenue streams could lead to lower ticket fares, other passengers don't want their data to be sold. United is aware that some customers may have privacy concerns, as told to the Wall Street Journal via anonymous sources. The new advertising program isn't set in stone yet, but if it is ever rolled out, United will launch with care, so as not to alarm customers. Of course, with privacy laws, passengers will always have the right to opt out of sharing their data for advertising purposes.

Other brands in the travel industry have launched similar platforms, like Marriott Hotels & Resorts. In 2022, the popular hotel group rolled out a targeted advertising plan called the Marriot Media Network. This program curates product suggestions and nearby services to 164 million loyalty members while they travel. The ads appear on customer's televisions, on the mobile app, and via email. Outside the travel space, similar programs have been launched by Walmart, Instacart, Home Depot, and Walgreens. Whether you're all for it or against it, one thing is clear: gone are the days of passive advertising, when you might thumb through a glossy magazine of products mid-flight and decide they're not for you. Companies are finding new ways to reach you — even at 30,000 feet.