United Airlines recently issued the iPhone 6 Plus to all its flight attendants, a move that’s been in the works since last year. The phones replace safety manuals and handle onboard food and drink sales, and, according to one tipster, they’re also loaded with all the personal info the airline has on its passengers. Wait, what?
Back in December, United boasted the iPhones would enable employees to” deliver an even higher level of flyer-friendly service and will offer our flight attendants simple, one-touch access to valuable work information, enabling them to better serve our customers.”
Apparently they also have simple, one-touch access to “information about each passenger including their full travel itinerary and any personally identifying information they provided through their reservation, including their date of birth,” according to a source who emailed us with concerns about United’s new software.
“They’ve already had an issue on a flight where a flight attendant wished a passenger a happy birthday only to have the passenger become furious that their personal information was being passed around,” the tipster noted.
The new phones were reportedly issued at a training last week, so that incident could just be the first of many.
United addressed the birthday issue in an email to Gawker, defending the practice as longstanding and non-creepy, but didn’t respond to questions about what passenger information the app makes available:
Flight attendants have recognized milestones of our most frequent travelers, including birthdays or achievement of million-miler status, for many years, and customer feedback has been consistently positive. Enabling them to access those milestones via their handheld devices simply makes the process easier, and we are certain customers will continue to appreciate the recognition that they have come to expect given their loyalty.
The following link will take you to a conversation on the frequent-flyer forum FlyerTalk, where customers express how much they enjoy United recognizing milestones like birthdays.
In a follow-up email, the United spokesperson added the app reveals “itinerary and loyalty program status.”
The source said that’s not the whole truth, though: the information includes “the whole reservation including all the personal info - address, date of birth, etc.”—everything a flight attendant would need to help rebook a flight. (That’s something flight attendants are now being trained on, they said.)
The source was unwilling to provide additional information or any screenshots from the new, potentially privacy-violating system, citing “threats” United has issued to its flight attendants since merging with Continental in 2010.
(Flight attendants for the two airlines are represented by different unions with separate contracts, and hundreds of United employees were put on forced furlough to the lower-paying Continental unit last year. Five years after the merger, a union representing 24,000 flight attendants is negotiating for a new contract that would finally cover both groups, but it’s not going well.)
But there are thousands of other United flight attendants who’ve been issued the new phones with the allegedly creepy software, and we’d like to know what passenger information it actually provides: Can you see the email address a customer used to book their flight? Their phone number? What about passengers on other flights?
If you’re a flight attendant or other United employee with access to the in-flight iPhone app—or an employee at another airline that does something similar—we’re very curious about how United handles and distributes its customer information. There are several ways to contact Gawker anonymously.