Free beer in flight (but only if you’re a criminal)

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Those beers you order in flight? They are not charged in real time to your credit card. Nor are the sandwiches or the snack packs or the movies or the duty free you order from the flight attendants’ trolley or via the in-flight entertainment system. Those transactions occur when the aircraft reaches the gate. After you’ve deplaned. And long after law enforcement can catch up with you.

Airlines don’t like to discuss it, but collectively they lose some $50 million per year from in flight credit card theft (that’s what they lose after the per-transaction warranty kicks in). Why? Because real-time credit card transactions are not regularly occurring in flight…yet.

Sure, any airline that offers in-flight connectivity to passengers is diligently working to ensure that goods purchased via credit card in the air are authorized in the air. Real-time in-flight credit card transactions are just around the corner.

But what do airlines do now to mitigate fraud, or “shrinkage” as retail stores refer to it? Virgin America, which does a lot of transacting through its in-flight entertainment systems – and offers Gogo’s in-flight connectivity solution! – has “got some pretty creative things in place to minimize fraud”, says Virgin America director of engineering Ken Bieler.

The carrier insists that it doesn’t retain information about passengers (i.e. it doesn’t record dud credit card numbers, which I find hard to believe), but it “has some security measures in place that identifies weird behavior”, says Bieler.

I’m going to go out on a not-too-distant limb here and suggest that Virgin America is keeping a close eye on the amount of stuff you by in flight – how many beers you buy, how many sandwiches you shovel down your throat, how much premium content you order via the IFE. If you’re acting “erratic” with your spending, I’m willing to bet that’s a red flag.

If you’re hoping to score SkyMall items via Virgin America’s IFE with a dud credit card, you’re out of luck. SkyMall transactions occur after landing “so there is no fraud on the shopping”, says Virgin America.

Once credit cards can be processed in real time during flight, airlines will have the ability to offer an array of high end goods to passengers. Cars? Jewelery? Couture? The sky is the limit. In-flight gambling also becomes an option at that point.

Meanwhile, if you’re a true criminal, you already know you can get away with stealing food/liquor/stuff in flight (i.e. I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know). If you’re not already a criminal, I do NOT suggest you turn to a life of in flight crime. They’ll catch up with you eventually. :-)

(Photo above from S-ly’s Flickr photo stream)

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One Response to Free beer in flight (but only if you’re a criminal)

  1. jetcal1 July 26, 2011 at 1:47 pm #

    Why not just add a block during the reservation process to buy your food and drink in advance from an on-line menu? Most of use would be a reasonable amount for a reasonable quality level of service. Say $5.5o a beer and $10-15 a plate. Given at least 48 hours from booking the airline could schedule it. Now the problem becomes one of galley/storage space versus rev pax.