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American Airlines Accidentally Prompts Frequent Flyers to Leak Their Own Data

Dec. 22, 2018
4 min read
American Airlines Accidentally Prompts Frequent Flyers to Leak Their Own Data
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You'd think that the world's largest airline would be very cautious about not sharing its most important customers' personal and frequent flyer account information. But, this is exactly the situation that American Airlines faced this week when it sent out "your year in review" emails to its frequent flyers. And reviews are mixed in how the airline is handling the situation.

Here's what happened: On Thursday evening, American Airlines sent its elite flyers an email with their flying stats so far in 2018. The extended graphic had fascinating facts like number of hours in the sky, number of destinations visited, longest flight, aircraft flown the most, bag fees saved and number of upgrades received.

Those are some fun stats that would otherwise take a lot of record-keeping for flyers to figure out themselves. And there's no issue with flyers sharing this information. However, the problem was with the social sharing buttons at the bottom of the email.

Flyers were prompted to "Share your travel #2018from30kfeet" with links to share this infographic on Facebook and Twitter. But, the information didn't just include the flyer's stats — but also included the frequent flyer number and email address associated with the account.

Within a couple of hours, the TPG tips email lit up with reports about the issue. It seems that American Airlines caught the issue fairly quickly, as the Facebook and Twitter sharing links in my email were broken by the time I looked into the situation that evening.

Mistakes happen, but the true test of a company's customer service is how they handle the follow-up after a mistake. On Friday afternoon, TPG contributor Patrick Fallon reported receiving a follow-up email from American Airlines' Chief Privacy Officer Russell Hubbard, admitting the mistake. Referring to the year-end summary email, AA is forthright about what was accidentally shared:

At the time the email was sent, those links inadvertently included your AAdvantage number and email address associated with your AAdvantage account. If you shared the link on Facebook or Twitter, that information was made visible to those with access to your social media post. We quickly corrected the issue, however, our records show you may have posted the link before we caught the error thereby exposing your AAdvantage number and email address.

The email recommended those who posted their infographic remove the social media post and "actively monitor your [AAdvantage] account and let us know if you observe and suspicious activity." Later, Patrick received a follow-up phone call from American Airlines apologizing for the error.

But, it seems that apologizing is all that the airline is going to do: American Airlines replied to TPG reader Christoph Trappe on Twitter saying that the airline isn't offering bonus miles for the mistake, but is offering to change the frequent flyer's number if they're concerned:

In a blog post about the situation, Christoph shared that he too received an email and a follow-up phone call. Although concluding that "the follow up wasn’t bad," he points out that the email and phone call weren't until 18 hours after he'd accidentally posted the infographic. If he hadn't noticed the error and immediately removed the post, this would have been a very long time for his information to have been shared.

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For frequent flyers like Patrick who noticed the error before posting to social media, I can see the airline's argument for not granting miles. In Christoph's case, his information was indeed leaked — if even for a moment — so a token mileage bonus seems justified. Hopefully any flyers that were seriously affected by this leak will get commensurate mileage compensation and prompt attention to rectifying the impact.

The takeaway for TPG readers: be careful what you share on social media. Theft of loyalty program points and miles are a lot more common than one might think. It's never a good idea to post your boarding pass. If you must show off that first class ticket, make sure to black out the barcode, ticket number, reservation number, frequent flyer number and any other personal information on the boarding pass. It's surprisingly easy for someone to wreck your trip with this information.

If you were one of the American Airlines flyers who accidentally posted your personal information, know that you have the option to change your frequent flyer number. And since two of the three pieces of information that are needed to log into your account would be known (frequent flyer number and last name), you probably want to change your AA password to be safe.

Featured image by Getty Images