“Our unique capability is that we have figured out how to identify a mobile device on a particular flight,” says Skyhook’s David Bairstow.

Skyhook, a location intelligence platform that has traditionally worked with brick-and-mortar brands to provide insights on mobile-connected consumers on the ground, is taking to the skies to provide similar CRM information to airlines about frequent flier activity on rival carriers.

The Boston tech company’s product, simply dubbed Geospatial Insights For Airlines, was released last week as Skyhook entered discussions with an unspecified number of carriers interested in tapping into its datasets to enhance marketing and route planning.

Skyhook runs a global database that contains the approximate geolocations of billions of access points and hundreds of millions of cell towers. But this is the first time the company has been able to access consumers’ mobile devices while in-flight, and track that activity from arrival at the airport to the traveler’s destination.

Skyhook’s extensive insight into roughly 100 million mobile devices’ location data, allows them to map smartphone movements against “high-quality airport venue infrastructures,” says David Bairstow, SVP/GM for Skyhook’s Geospatial Insights Team.

At the same time, the company is emphatic about its need to preserve a balance between obtaining and using data that allows for greater personalization on the one hand, and respecting consumers’ wariness of data collection on the other.

“Skyhook takes consumer privacy very seriously,” Bairstow says. “All devices we monitor are anonymized and we do not collect or share any personally identifiable information.” 

Ultimately, the value Skyhook proffers takes the form of insights into patterns it detects around commercial entities. For this program, the tech company is monitoring over 175 airports in the U.S., has identified millions of fliers, and has matched over 28,000 flights per day to physical movement.

“Our unique capability is that we have figured out how to identify a mobile device on a particular flight,” Bairstow tells Kambr Media. “We can literally determine which plane a mobile device is traveling on based on observations at the origin and destination airports. On top of that, we’re integrating this information with flight tracking data and using smart learning and algorithms to make those determinations.” 

Instead of making a relatively simple observation such as noting that a mobile device is at Boston Logan Airport, Skyhook can associate that device to the actual flight number, airline brand, origin, and destination of the person carrying the device. This represents an “incredible set of analytical currencies,” Bairstow notes. 

“That’s why this is interesting for large parts of, and different organizations within, an airline. It certainly provides insights for focusing on loyalty and marketing.”

Boston's Logan Airport

Looking Beyond Credit Card Data

While Skyhook's ground-to-air device tracking is novel, it may not seem that different from the information credit card issuers gather on their users, particularly ones using co-branded airline rewards cards.

However, "credit card data available to airlines only shows insights from Amex or data from Visa or Mastercard," Bairstow counters. "They typically provide limited 'black box insights.' They are mainly able to say, 'This flier spent x-amount of money on other airlines.' But the credit cards won't break out which other airlines that flier traveled on. You may get a broad sense of the percent of travel budget that you’re capturing if you're American or Delta, but you will have no extra insight into who else  they're spending those dollars with and where they're going. We don't impose those limits on the information we can share with airline clients."

 Among the questions Skyhook can answer for airlines:

  • What portion of consumers total flight spend do I capture? 
  • Where am I losing market share and why?
  • What other airlines do my loyal fliers fly with most?

 "What we're doing is working with airlines and other travel partners to help them provide really interesting new perspectives on flying activities," Bairstow says.

Finding Airline Splitters

Among the many details airlines and their co-branded credit card partners often collaborate on is determining when a card user flies with a rival carrier.

With Geospatial Insights for Airlines, Skyhook is promising broader information on these so-called airline travel “splitters.” For one thing, Skyhook can look at consumers’ activity beyond their use of a single credit card for a flight on a competing airline.

“When we're working with airlines specifically, they're really interested in finding splitters,” Bairstow says.  “We’re not limited to the user of a single credit card. When an airline wants to identify all fliers that have flown with them over the last six months, or if they want to identify anybody who's flown on another airline, we can do that because of the wide array of devices we monitor.” 

Once Skyhook has identified a particular group of fliers, it can find out why they’re taking another carrier competitor: is it because an airline client doesn’t offer direct flights between those city pairs? Do we think it's a pricing issue? 

“It gives airlines a much better base for analytics when they have this granular level of detail,” he says. “The airline can then take direct action since all of the insights are tied to targetable advertising identifiers.”

Skyhook's Geospatial Insights For Airlines

Skyhook says it can show airlines what other carriers their frequent fliers are traveling on

Connecting Oakland To Hawaii

In March, Southwest Airlines began service to Hawaii from both Oakland and San Jose, CA. 

That was sure to disrupt the existing Oakland to Hawaii flights by Hawaiian Airlines and Alaska Airlines, carriers with established routes between the two locations.

By using its geolocation monitoring, Skyhook, which does not currently work with any of those three carriers, was able to get a fairly clear view of how Southwest’s entry into the Oakland-to-Hawaii marketplace affected business on the two dominant airlines.

“When other airlines are starting to think about entering new markets, it's going to be interesting to be able to have this level of information and be able to potentially initiate direct marketing at people that they know fly those routes,” Bairstow says. “Then, what we can do is look at the impact after.”

Before Southwest entered the Oakland to Honolulu market, Hawaiian Air had a 68 percent share and Alaska had 32 percent share. In the months following Southwest’s mid-March entrance, its market share increased to 55 percent, while Hawaiian Air’s decreased to 29 percent and Alaska’s decreased to 16 percent.

"We see more fliers on this route with Southwest leading the way," Bairstow says. “Southwest today can report internally on the counts of the flyers that they've moved between these places, but they don't have a great sense of the impact that they've made on the other airlines. Just think about that from an internal metrics and reporting capability. Obviously, if I were any of Southwest’s rivals, I would say, ‘Okay, this is a really interesting picture of what happened right after Southwest launched Hawaii service: they had tons of fanfare, a massive amount of advertising; let's monitor this over time to see what marketing we can do to counteract this.’”

For Skyhook, the release of its airline solution is viewed as an opportunity to refocus its general offerings toward travel and hospitality brands. The timing is in synch with the growth of the travel tech space in terms of new startups and investment activity which have shown established platform companies that the demand for deep analytics from major brands exists and is viable.

Plus, the ability to use of location data to connect travel marketers of all stripes has a natural appeal for a company like Skyhook.

“Our Geospatial Insights for Airlines is a natural fit for all of the co-sponsorship and marketing relationships between the carriers, hotels, and rental car companies,” Bairstow says. “The history of using location-based data to help identify hotel guests, fliers or rental car users is pretty mature. Skyhook has always focused on accuracy over maximizing scale at all costs. So we were really excited to put this extra layer of complexity and sophistication into the airlines solution – going from a relatively simple observation of seeing a mobile device at an airport to being able to put them on a specific plane. And so we're looking to bring that level of sophistication to travel more broadly.”