By
Aviation.com
updated 9/21/2008 8:25:56 PM ET 2008-09-22T00:25:56

Slowly but surely airlines are edging into online social networking, giving air travelers an opportunity to share experiences and maybe score some discounted airfares. In return, the airlines are developing a marvelous new marketing tool.

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A win-win? Maybe.

As usual, U.S. carriers — which are preoccupied with battling high fuel prices and slackening demand for travel — face the fact that innovation is coming from overseas, where most major airlines are still solvent, if not necessarily flying high.

Just this week, Lufthansa, the dominant German carrier, introduced what it says is the first-ever dedicated airline-sponsored social network for college students: GenFlyLounge.com. GenFlyLounge.com allows duly enrolled student-members to compare notes on travel experiences and destinations and buy discounted student airfares on Lufthansa. Users must have current .edu e-mail addresses and present college IDs when they check-in at the airport for their flights.

Registration is free, but of course members tell the carrier about themselves, and the resulting consumption patterns and travel chatter tells Lufthansa who is using the program and how.

Lufthansa’s virtual lounge follows by 18 months KLM Royal Dutch Airlines’ launch of online communities KLM Club Africa and Club China — which target road-warrior business executives who fly often to Africa and China — and Flying Blue Golf, which is aimed at duffers. This last social network is especially notable; it allows golfers to comment on their golf scores and courses they have played, use KLM frequent flyer points to buy golfing equipment and, of course, book golfing trips on KLM.

Recently, Scandinavian Airlines moved to establish close ties with a high-profile, high-income demographic group by establishing a Web site dedicated to the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender/transsexual community.

On the new site, flysas.com/gay, the airline's own gay staff provide tips on the best restaurants, venues and events in Stockholm and Copenhagen. SAS also has partnered with several organizations and publishers so the site can offer gay maps, gay guides and an events calendar that is updated daily for both cities. While the new site has yet to become truly a social network, the potential for it to do so — and for SAS to be able to market directly to a community of people who travel more than most — is very clear.

In the United States, Web sites such as FlyerTalk.com provide platforms for people to talk about airlines and, not infrequently, vent about the troubled state of air travel. But airline-sponsored social networks are different; they allow airlines to help shape the conversation.

U.S. carriers are arriving late at the social networking party, but they are arriving, albeit with somewhat less ambitious agendas than those of major European carriers. So far, U.S. carriers have been content to launch the occasional blog, such as Southwest Airlines’ “Nuts About Southwest." The blog allows some user comment but consists mainly of airline employees self-consciously writing about their employers for public consumption.

Lufthansa’s and KLM’s programs are a good deal broader and more interactive than U.S. carriers’ blogs, which are chiefly public relations efforts.

No doubt U.S. airlines will be watching to see if social networking takes off. If so, we may expect to see more of it, especially when American carriers finally fly out of their current crisis and begin to innovate again instead of dreaming up still more passenger fees.

In the meantime, should you sign up for one of the leading-edge airline social networks?

If you don’t mind joining an on-going, online airline focus group, why not? It’s fun to communicate with other travelers about common interests and you might get one of those rare cheap fares. Just be aware that the airlines are creating these communities at least as much for their benefit as yours.

© 2013 Imaginova Corp.

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