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Fliers increasingly are warming up to the concept of choice, aka à la carte, meaning paying only for those services you want in the airport or on the plane. But going à la carte comprehensively, that is, across hundreds of airlines around the world, is not as easy as it seems. New real-time booking technology is required to make that a reality.

United Airlines, to use one example, has reintroduced its Economy Plus Upsell, which is the upgrading of passengers from the airline's economy section to seats that offer more legroom and complimentary services.

The twist is that United is upselling these seats even after takeoff.

Selling in the air is made possible by United's adoption of new handheld credit card scanners with which flight attendants are now equipped. No longer are flight crew just safety instructors and food service personnel. Today airline attendants have become salespeople-in-the-clouds.

Sure, flight attendants have always sold duty-free fare on international flights. But those sales were more in the form of an offer. What United has rolled out is selling in a way no airline, at least to my recollection, has done before. This is definitely the wave of the future in the air.

United attendants will push up to three upsell messages to passengers in the economy section in an effort to sell each flight's entire Economy Plus inventory. Until now, things have been more informal. Passengers have merely moved to unoccupied seats when it became apparent that the seat was going to stay empty or shortly after takeoff.

United can do upselling because attendants will have at their fingertips real-time data about which seats are actually available. Traditionally, determining seat upsell availability has been difficult, with seat assignments changing at the gate even as people are boarding.

True integration of an airline's reservations, inventory, and departure control systems is required to make this sort of advanced à la carte feature possible. A number of airlines, including United, are adopting advanced information technology systems that give them an edge in that department over airlines that are still flying with older IT.

But new services like in-the-air seat upsell create new questions. For instance, what if there is only one Economy Plus seat left and three passengers simultaneously signal they want it. How does a flight attendant not only fairly pick the winner but then smooth the ruffled feathers of the two passengers who lost out? Is it loyalty-based or first come, first served? Will this be a boost to airline loyalty programs?

Obviously, the airlines and the systems that support them need to develop policies. What if a service is not delivered? What's the policy then? Let's say an Economy Upsell was booked by a customer, but then an earlier flight became available. How does that work? Is it refunded or transferred? What happens when a flight is cancelled or delayed?

The complications presented by à la carte thus are not just technological complexities but complexities of customer relationship management.

Carriers may learn from the experiences of their competitors, but many airlines are developing their own customized strategy for à la carte. The whole thrust behind what is also known as "ancillary services" is to improve customer service and profits, but also to differentiate the brand.

In the past service was one size fits all. That made comparing costs a lot easier, even as it stifled innovation. But because choice begets complexity, comparing costs in an à la carte world is not so easy. Indeed, the technological challenges are daunting. Returning to an across-the-board comparison that is readily understandable is the common goal.

So, while à la carte merchandising transparency remains frustratingly just over the horizon, the solution is entwined with the question of new standards that the travel industry will have to adopt. Before transparency becomes reality, information needs to become standardized and streamlined. It's a tall order. In fact, it's sky high.

Airline Futurist • Miami •