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Booking flights on Facebook

Published on  12 May by Jim Peters , Chief Technology Officer, SITA
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On February 28th, SITA Lab launched a booking application for Malaysia Airlines on Facebook called MHbuddy. The reaction and comments so far have been really interesting and wide-ranging. There is quite a bit of skepticism, with the usual "that'll never take off" (which I heard a lot in the early days of the Internet when demoing the WWW to people), to "I would never post my credit card on Facebook" (the MHbuddy app does not have credit card information stored on Facebook or even pass through Facebook servers at any point), and of course the "this changes everything, it's the Next Big Thing" advocates.

There is certainly no shortage of hype around the mercurial rise of Facebook, from its 600M+ subscriber base, to its market cap and potential IPO, there are plenty of tongues wagging. But will it continue to grow and the amount of time people spend on it continue to increase at the same pace? Or is it the CB radio of the decade, a phenomenon of the 70's when they became wildly in fashion (yes, we had one in my family station wagon back in the day: "Breaker, breaker Big Buddy"), only to disappear with the arrival of mobile phones?

It seems clear that the so called "Social Media" concept underlying Facebook is here to stay. Facebook was not the first in this space, and some early entrants like MySpace are already fading. The activity of sharing status, photos, videos, events and comments within one's social circle of friends and relatives is a new form of communication and collaboration that is here to stay. The question will be what format and platforms will be used in the future to do it. For now, it is Facebook, but much like the CB radio, expect it to morph or be replaced as the technology continues to evolve. I suggest that the future platform question around social media is inextricably linked to the evolution of new device formats and capabilities of smartphones and tablets versus the traditional PC. For example, Google has launched a new laptop with Samsung that is based on its Chrome browser. It works like a tablet but has a keyboard and all data is stored in the cloud.

Back to the question of where flight booking applications will go on Facebook, we don't know. That is why this project was done in SITA Lab. It is a trial to see what can be learned. The ability to plan a flight itinerary in collaboration with one's friends and relatives, aka your "social graph", seems compelling, especially around an event such as a family wedding, where you want to share and coordinate your travel plans with others. To also integrate your social graph's recommendations and advice on things to do, see, and eat as you share your itinerary also seems to be of value.

MHbuddy is the first booking app that integrates your social graph in the booking process (Delta had the first booking app on Facebook but it doesn't access your social graph), showing what friends are located in places you are flying to, sharing your itinerary with friends, and even allowing you to select a seat next to a Facebook friend that is on the same flight. The initial uptake is slow but steadily increasing, and this effort is the beginning of a journey for airlines to enter the social media realm and integrate the travel planning process with the collaboration platforms people are using. As I said, these social media platforms will continue to evolve, and the best approaches for using them for travel booking will evolve as well. As this is the start of a journey, we may not know now where it will take us, but like all journeys, they don't start until you take the first steps, open your eyes and start to see where it takes you.

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