In the latest of an occasional series of personal columns from Paul Coby, the SITA chairman and former British Airways chief information officer looks at how social media could revolutionise the air travel decision process

It surprises me when companies are hesitant to get into the mobile thing - it's like being hesitant to get into the internet thing," said Nathan Bucholz, Google travel industry manager, at the recent Innovation in Airline Distribution conference in London. "If you have your head in the sand, next thing there's a storm blowing up and you don't know about it."

Numerous contributors echoed his view. But not everyone agreed: "Everyone thinks you can create commerce through Facebook but I've not seen a good use of selling tickets through social websites yet," said one senior airline executive. "Is it more of a marketing tool or can it be a commerce tool as well?"

WAF10 - Coby 
 Read Paul Coby's previous column on how IT developments could shape airline distribution in the future

"I'm on the fence about whether we want to impose shopping on [a social network]," said another. So the airline industry is divided, some riding the wave of these new uses of technology while others remain sceptical, believing they will not affect mainstream selling and distribution. A disruptive technology is erupting on to the scene: is it a game changer or a passing fad?

What are the basics? Everyone agrees the focus on the customer - and on what the customer wants - is crucial. But will social networking help you in business? Can you sell on it? Is it a genuine new channel?

"Dealing with Generation Y is our key challenge," said one speaker. "We are a little bit fearful about opening up the floodgates from a social media perspective," said another. "When you introduce a financial exchange [on social media] it changes the rules," said a third. Will social networking simply change how we share family news and photos? Or was Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook founder, right to predict (at Web 2.0 Summit in San Francisco) that "over the next five years, most industries are going to get re-thought to be social, and designed around people"?

UK technology magazine Wired recently suggested that before the Industrial Revolution, mass society did not exist: life revolved around your tribe, town or village. Networks of affiliation averaged around 150 individual relatives, friends and others. So from a social anthropological perspective, Facebook is arguably a return to the norm.

Sounds odd? But just how many people do you really want to invite to your daughter's wedding or hold that big party with? Through social networks you can get advice on the latest films and books from the community you personally trust, like, are related to or want to influence.

Sceptics may at this point say: "So what? Even if I buy into this thesis, this is about sharing photos with your mates - not about commerce." But word-of-mouth has always been important in selecting goods and services.

Now, when we are deciding to fly on business, to stay at a hotel on holiday, or to buy a new outfit or the next brand of smartphone, we can ask our personal networks, consult other travellers on TripAdviser or check what's trending on Twitter.

And if we want not just advice but actual feedback, we can float an idea and share it - or take a photo on our phone and post it - and hear straight away what our friends think of our prospective choices.

We are part of a fundamental social shift: in 2010, Americans spent 23% of their online time using social networks - use among 50- to 64-year-olds almost doubling. As Zuckerberg says: "I would expect that next year people will share twice as much information as they share this year, and the next year they will be sharing twice as much as they did before."

So what kind of impact might this have for the air transport industry? Demonstrating Malaysia Airlines' new Facebook-based booking tool for groups, Jim Peters of SITA said: "Trip planning for personal travel is going to happen on Facebook in the future."

Bucholz from Google says: "42% of people have smartphones in the UK now [and] it's going to 77% in two years' time. So this is not about the future - mobile is a vital channel for business now." Put this together with the SITA Lab's prediction of the next big thing - payment for travel and other goods through smartphone apps - and we've got something major to think about.

Source: Airline Business