jay-vidyarthiAir travel and social media are clearly made for each other. It’s not just about Facebook pages, Twitter accounts and YouTube channels. Airlines like Virgin Atlantic are doing ground-breaking work around chat rooms, multiplayer games, e-mail, SMS, and integration with mobile devices on their inflight systems. But most of these developments are focused on bringing existing third-party technology into the air. It’s time for airlines to start fostering social networks of their own, bringing together like-minded transumers and cutting-edge technology. Here are some ideas for how airlines can create new, more targeted social applications for in-flight systems:

Wiki-Seating

A Web-based pre-flight discussion board can help customers connect at the very beginning of the journey cycle. Giving passengers the option of sharing their travel plans, interests and destinations before the flight could help users build their own “wiki-seating plan” together. Business travellers could choose to sit next to fellow attendees of a particular conference. Backpackers could find like-minded travellers to explore with.

Itinerary-sharing sites like vtravelled and social applications like Dopplr are already allowing passengers to connect and share information. But why should airlines concede this ground to outside parties (or in vtravelled’s case, leave the network itself on the ground)? Consider the long-term branding power of your customized application being responsible for a new pair of travel buddies, business partners or even close friends.

Social Embodiment In Flight

Enabling passengers to access Twitter from their seats is a great start. But why not construct your own inflight social network? I’m not just talking about seat-to-seat chat. That’s so AIM; this is the Facebook era. Passengers could volunteer biographical information that can be used to generate relevant social statistics. Wouldn’t it be nice to know that “14 people on this plane are flying for the first time,” or that “there are seven Spanish speakers on this flight”? A sophisticated social interface could allow passengers to customize their privacy settings, allowing more discreet passengers to participate in conversation threads without feeling vulnerable.

This type of content could also be a key marketing point, as statistics could present brand-specific information (i.e. “64 percent of the people on this plane booked their flight through Cheaptickets.com” or “59 people on this plane are staying at Holiday Inn”). If Facebook has taught us anything, it’s that people are happy to share personal information – with both people and brands – so long as they get something in return. That something could be a new best friend, an interesting bit of trivia or a great last-minute deal at a local spa.

Completing the Journey Cycle

The socializing doesn’t have to stop at the terminal. Your inflight system can help passengers coordinate their plans upon arrival. An interactive map of the destination city could allow passengers to pinpoint their hotels or conference centers – and figure out the best way to get there. The system could easily suggest social groups who might benefit from sharing a taxi, helping each other find a connecting flight, or sharing a drink during the layover. By providing these services inflight, you can keep passengers off their PDAs and engaged with your brand and partners throughout the journey.

It’s great to see airlines embracing social media. But it’s time to realize that your airplanes are social media with the ability to convert strangers into travel mates and frequent flyers into loyal customers. With a scientific approach to product design, you can turn your inflight system into a Transumer gateway. The key to real aircraft connectivity is right in front of your nose – or rather, in the back of your seat.