Boarding Pass Ads and Privacy Worries

Advertising, American, Continental, Delta, Northwest, United, US Airways

Am I the only one who thinks this whole boarding pass advertising thing is a little creepy? It’s not the concept that bothers me. You want to throw some ads on my boarding pass? Go ahead. It’s the fact that they’re using my demographics to target ads that makes me nervous.

The basic idea is that right now, when you print your boarding pass at home, it’s just a boarding pass. So, American, Continental, Delta, Northwest, United, and US Airways have now all partnered with a new company called Sojern that will sell ad spots on your boarding pass and mask it by offering weather information. Of course, the spin is that this makes life easier for the traveler. Whatever. I’ve never had trouble clicking on Weather Underground to get my own weather, but if you want to put it on there . . . fine.

None of that bothers me. What bothers me is something that I haven’t really seen talked about. Yes, the company admits that it’s targeting based upon where you’re going, and others have mentioned that. Well duh, that makes sense, and I don’t mind them sharing that information. But, if you click on the sample boarding pass (PDF), it states “Sojern’s new media delivers tailored advertising messages based on travelers’ unique itineraries and demographics.”

Hold on here. How are you getting my demographic information? Is the airline sharing it with you if I’m logged in to an account when I check in? I don’t like that at all.

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20 comments on “Boarding Pass Ads and Privacy Worries

  1. Targeting demographics is exactly what every advertiser does. That’s why you usually don’t see ads for a BMW on daytime Cartoon Network. Considering the amount of information available via the Internet, that they are targeting demographics doesn’t really bother me. Of course I used to work in the media industry, so maybe I’ve become immune to the demographic targeting dilemma.

  2. I suppose the issue for me is what they mean by “demographics.” If they’re targeting me based on where I’m traveling, that’s fine. But if the airline is feeding them age, hometown, and whatever other information I’ve surrendered to them in order to sign up for my online account, then I have issues.

  3. I Agree whith CF. if they put an ad Marriot Hotel (Your Destination Here) i have no problem

  4. The demographics element is also a key way of deciding how the vast majority of online ad networks operate. From your IP address they can tell where you live, and from the cookies in your surfing history, they can tell a reasonable amount of information about who you are and what your interests are.

    This way, when I click on as a sports-loving male from California, the ads could be significantly different from those seen by a knitting Web site-obsessed Granny from Vermont.

    As much as it may be a little intrusive, this is the way modern advertising works.

    Hey Cranky, even you collect your visitors’ data and use it for advertisers (“80% of visitors are from the US (UK and Canada have 5% each)”).

  5. Tim – Broad demographics don’t bother me at all. And yeah, if an advertiser wants to know where my visitors are coming from, I’m happy to tell them . . . in aggregate. But I wouldn’t share any user-specific data.

    This may be the way that “modern” advertising works, but I don’t have to like it. If I want someone to use my information, I will give it to them.

  6. I would check the terms and conditions and/or privacy policy of your online agreement. I will bet that find something similar to what I found in my Continental privacy policy:

    “From time to time, individual information may be shared with our OnePass partners in order to provide members with requested products or services, as well as more opportunities to earn miles and other benefits associated with OnePass membership”

    That’s their escape for sharing the data. In most cases, you will also see a sentence similar to this one:

    “If you choose to opt out of these options, you may set the privacy flag for either your phone number and/ or your mailing address in the “My Account” area on”

    I’ve not worked with the airlines before, but I have worked with a number of large, Fortune-1000 companies, and usually they take the opt-out very seriously. As such, if anyone is concerned with their information being shared, I would suggest finding out how to opt-out of your information being shared with third parties.


  7. Cookie tracking isn’t quite as Tim makes it out. The mere fact that someone visits, say ESPN which presumably sets a cookie, and then goes to CNN, doesn’t mean that CNN knows this. Cookies set by are only accessible to

    Where things get interesting though is the cookies set by the third party advertising companies (DoubleClick, etc). Since those are set by DoubleClick’s servers, DoubleClick can see them whenever you visit a site that uses their services. Thus, DoubleClick would know that you visited both EPSN and CNN and could give you sports ads on CNN.

    This is why I recommend enabling the option to block cookies from third party sites in Firefox and Safari (I don’t think IE has it but people shouldn’t be using IE anyway, and I don’t know about Opera), since this prevents advertisers like DoubleClick from setting cookies. Many of the advertising companies also offer an opt out service which sets a cookie that has something like “OPT OUT” instead of a unique number.

    IP tracking also doesn’t always provide reliable geographic information. While many ISPs do assign IP addresses that are regionally grouped, others don’t. AOL comes to mind as the most prominent example I can think of for ISPs in the latter group.

  8. Forgot to note in my previous comment that companies mentioned are for example purposes only. I didn’t look to see if CNN or ESPN use DoubleClick, etc.

  9. I love this qoute:

    “Our focus group research has continually shown that passengers love the concept and praise the airlines for providing this innovative offering,” said Gordon Whitten, the founder of Sojern and former Ernst and Young Midwest Technology Entrepreneur of the Year.”

    It sounds like the they researched until they found the answer they wanted. (Or just made it up.) No one is that enthusiastic.

    I don’t care for this advertising – but on this on I’m more indifferent. I never use my boarding pass for anything more than a bookmark. Unless the ad was for a free steak dinner I don’t think it will influence anything I would do or purchase upon arrival in a new city, or back home.

  10. James – agreed. It was probably a loaded question a la “would you rather pay $50 more for your trip, or have a teensy-weensy ad on your boarding pass?”

  11. Well, it’s also not quite clear where the data will come together. The “point of sale” if you will seems to be the individual air carrier’s Web site. Does the air carrier data go out to Sojourn and then come back to the passenger with the boarding pass, or does the air carrier pull content from Sojourn based on its own data. In the later scenario, Sojourn never really knows the passenger.

  12. I think they can target with the ads without too much specific information. For example, elite members of FF programs might get different ads. Those using corporate booking tools might see something else, maybe the advertises will hope those on an expense account will spend some extra cash. If a hotel is booked through the airline, perhaps ads for businesses closer to the hotel will show up.

    Finally, the overview PDF says that users can edit their preferences for what the want to see, for what it’s worth.

  13. Don’t we have enough ads being pushed in our faces everywhere we go. Now I have to pay for the ink, electric, and extra use of my printer to print something I don’t want to see in the first place. I hope one of the ads is a coupon for a free ink cartridge every once in awhile.

  14. David touches on a key point.. I don’t see why its worth it for me to check in online versus at a kiosk — its just something more to do before I leave home, and uses my paper instead of the airline’s paper.

    Sure I’ll use my paper if it gives me something, but as one of those strange people who still checks luggage, it doesn’t save me much if any time to print my boarding pass up in advance.

  15. This is not a bad idea to make some additional revenue and to offset the cost of fuel. But will the airlines reinvest this money in improving service, new aircrafts or even provide free meals again. I expect not. Whats next, will we see sponsors logos on flight crew uniforms.

  16. As a commuter myself, if advertising inside and outside the airplane can keep the airlines from folding and help keep the cost of my tickets down, I am all for it. It will be a sad day if we are reliant on one government run airline because all the private ones have gone under.

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