Yes, this seems like a potential invasion of privacy, but let's not get ahead of ourselves. The chances of airlines adopting this technology are low.
What if an airline knew how much passengers weighed before assigning them a seat? Could that make the travel experience more comfortable for all travelers?
MasterCard could give airlines that option, according to a patent application that became public earlier this month. By tracking clothing and shoe purchases, Mastercard knows the approximate height and weight of each household member, and it could share that data with airlines and other transportation companies, the application states. The application suggests airlines might use the data to ensure they do not seat “two physically large strangers next to each other.”
Corporations apply for patents all the time, and often nothing comes of them. Nonetheless, this one is interesting, if only because it shows how much data card companies have and what merchants can do with that information, if they wish.
While the patent’s inventor, Justin Xavier Howe, no longer works for Mastercard, the company retains the rights to it, spokesman Bernhard Mors said. However, Mastercard has no immediate plans to use the invention, he said.
“We file many patents, including those that may be ahead of our industry’s times,” Mors said. “For this particular patent, we have not focused on its application and have no further information to share.”
The patent is one of 40 invented by Howe at Mastercard, records show. It’s similar to a 2013 application that suggested retailers use similar data to estimate customer sizes in the hopes more accurate information would reduce returned merchandise.
How Tracking Could Work
The company applied for the application in 2015, and it became public on December 8. The application suggests there’s enough information in a product’s Stock Keeping Unit, or SKU, to determine clothing size. The SKU is a code merchants use to track items.
With its data, Mastercard says it can roughly estimate the size of every household member, not just the cardholder. And while this patent covers travel uses, the application notes the data could be helpful to companies in many fields.
“If the household includes a man, a woman and two identical twin boys, the household profile would be represented from the apparel data as ‘an adult male’ profile, ‘an adult female’ profile, and a ‘boy’ profile,” the application said. “As there is no way to distinguish which of the two boys a purchase is for, their profile may be included together.”
Mastercard can even guess whether a purchase is a gift. According to the application, it can assume that “rarely purchased sizes” likely are not meant for household members.
Mastercard could also use shoe data to supply airlines with data, the application states.
“Height is also correlated with shoe size, and can be approximated from the SKU purchase data for footwear,” the application said.
The application noted that Mastercard might need to obtain consent from card-holders before sharing their personal data with airlines.
“The systems and processes described herein are intended to be carried out in accord with all applicable data usage and privacy laws and regulations,” the application said. “For example, in order to comply with such laws and regulations, accountholders may first need to be consent and opt into the use of their [Personally Identifiable Information] as set forth in the embodiments described herein.”
Reporting to airlines
The patent application notes that airlines could simply ask passengers their height and weight, but it notes consumers tend to lie.
“People are unlikely to accurately report their actual size,” the application said. “For example, some individuals purposefully represent that they are lighter than they are. (‘I weigh less than 100 pounds.’) Others exaggerate their size. ‘I am six-foot-four-inches tall.'”
Airlines could receive the information in a couple of ways, according to the application. A carrier might request the passenger’s size, or the payment network could automatically transfer it to the airline after a ticket purchase.
While it’s possible Mastercard may never follow-up on the patent, corporations generally do not file for patents if they don’t suspect they could be useful in some form, said Peter A. Emmi, senior counsel at New York law firm Akin Gump, and a former lawyer at IBM.
“Patents are expensive,” he said. “Somebody had to make a decision that this may be worth the money and time to apply for a patent surrounding a potential future project or revenue stream.”
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Photo Credit: Airlines like Hawaiian might be able to more efficiently seat passengers if they knew their height and weight. Hawaiian Airlines