Shop the friendly skies? The airlines are hoping you'll buy while in the sky

Along with sandwiches and soda, you may one day be able to buy tickets to Lion King and Animal Kingdom while cruising 35,000 feet above ground. A New York Times story reported that the airline industry is tinkering with the idea of expanding retail offerings to boost revenue.

Leading the brigade is American Airlines, which sells Heathrow Express train tickets on its flights to London and allows passengers in-flight Internet access and a chance at splurging on products from the SkyMall -- the glossy brochure that sells everything from cabin bags to fancy pens and perfumes.

Many airlines around the world already sell a limited collection of products on board from SkyMall. The only glitch has been in the technology that would allow a purchase in real time. In the past, passengers had to wait until they reached their destination to place an order, but Canadian company GuestLogix solved that problem by coming up with a technology that allows on air sales with the help of a credit card reader and sales software.

Personally, I do like having that option of buying an extreme last minute gift for a forgotten relative while en route to that big family gathering in India. Apart from saving face, it also would help me kill some time on that 15-hour flight. But, would passengers who like catching up on precious sleep cringe at the option? Trying to fall asleep with flight attendants sashaying the aisles carrying products and swiping credit cards definitely won't be easy.

Scott Testa, professor of business administration at the Cabrini College in Pennsylvania, said in a phone interview that
many passengers would vote for shopping while flying. As long as the airline industry strikes that fine balance between servicing customers and increasing revenues, he said. A study by J.D. Power and Associates show that overall customer satisfaction with airlines in 2009 dipped for a third consecutive year to a four-year low.

The decline is driven by decreased passenger satisfaction with in-flight services, flight crew and costs and fees, the study found. So, could an industry that already has a dismal record in customer satisfaction burden its employees with additional duties?

Nevertheless, retailing on air makes sense for the struggling industry that's been in the red for some time now, Testa said.

"They are looking to increase revenue and get back into the black," he said. "And the nice thing about it is they have a captive audience in the passengers."

But a word of caution for the shopaholics out there. It may still be too early to salivate over a full-fledged mall in the sky. According to the New York Times story flight attendants have their reservations about doubling up as sales people. They want to know how they would be compensated for the extra work, and besides would it be safe to get distracted with sales pitches when you are responsible for safety of lives on board?

I am sure we will continue hearing this debate as the industry figures it all out.
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