Netfix knows what you watch. Why don't airlines?

Here's a head-scratcher: Most airlines have no idea what you watch on their in-flight entertainment screens. 

This may not sound like a big deal. But think about Netflix. The company became a giant by crunching data on everything you do with your account. It knows what you watch. It knows how long you watch. It makes recommendations on what you might like. It takes educated guesses on who your favorite actors and actresses are. It even creates and buys programming based on how much it thinks you will like it. 

And from what I learned this week at something called the Airline Passenger Experience Association expo, most airlines crunch none of this data. I talked to executives who said they would like to play with it and ones who said they plan to in the future. But from what I can tell, few if any airlines are doing much with it now. 

United Airlines is rolling out a new technology that allows you to stream airline-supplied content to your device. Should the airline be analyzing data on what you watch? Photo: United. 

United Airlines is rolling out a new technology that allows you to stream airline-supplied content to your device. Should the airline be analyzing data on what you watch? Photo: United. 

This seems like an antiquated approach. Yes, airlines can take educated guesses on what you would like. They can buy classics and new releases and cross their fingers that most customers will be satisfied. But think about how much information they could have. 

Maybe many viewers have started a movie but turned it off after 20 minutes. That could mean the movie isn't very good, right? And since many of these systems have a limited number of movies available, it would help the airlines cull their lists. Or maybe another movie is extremely popular and almost everyone watches until the end. Wouldn't that be great for passengers to know? You might even take a chance on a movie you would not ordinarily watch. 

And then there's advertising. Passengers might not like it, but airlines could tailor messages to viewers based on what they have watched. Industry insiders told me that this is possible and probably will occur in some form someday. 

Also, I shouldn't say no one is following this data. I learned from an executive at LiveTV that the company knows everything that is being watched by viewers on United and JetBlue and for how long it is being viewed. But it's not clear to me anyone is doing anything with that information. That could change in the future.