As everyone learned when a passenger was forcibly removed from a United Express flight, social media and the ubiquity of mobile phone cameras have shifted the ground rules for airline customer service. The best and worst corporate interactions speed across
the internet with potentially dire results for corporate targets of public anger.
For air carriers in particular, “the world changed” last April after the Chicago dragging incident, Oscar Munoz , CEO of United Continental Holdings Inc., said. This new reality is largely the reason so many airlines now staff social media departments around the clock, offering customers quick service while monitoring internet chatter for potential trouble, celebrity tweets and video snippets that could go viral.
A survey released by customer service firm Conversocial Inc. attempts to quantify how large airlines are interacting with the public on Twitter and Facebook. The firm sought to measure how often and how rapidly 20 big carriers respond to internet posts directed at them—many originating from unhappy customers who want the airline to remedy a problem.
Among North American carriers, JetBlue Airways Corp. and Virgin America, part of Alaska Air Group Inc., were quickest to respond to Twitter posts—in less than five minutes—while United Airlines Inc. was the laggard at more than 90 minutes, according to Conversocial, which develops social media management tools.
Of all the Twitter posts directed at North American airlines, American Airlines Group Inc. responded to the largest share, at 32.5 percent. Air Canada reacted to the least amount, at 10.3 percent. The vast majority of airline responses relate to customer service issues, although some react to more general complaints and compliments, Conversocial CEO Joshua March said. The data were compiled from Twitter posts made from October 5 to October 8 aimed at airlines based in North America, Europe and the Middle East.
“We recognise that oftentimes social media is the most convenient way for customers to interact with us and we are continuing to work hard on a daily basis to improve our response time,” United spokeswoman Maggie Schmerin said. The airline wouldn’t reveal much about its social media team, but she said United plans to increase that staff by “more than 150 percent” in the first quarter. Deutsche Lufthansa AG, the quickest European airline to respond, was also tagged as the least responsive carrier in that group, meaning the German company reacted to the fewest number of Twitter posts but was speedy when it decided to do so.
Airlines initially began using social media as a PR and branding tool, not as a customer service channel, March said, but passengers soon bent the platform to their own purposes. “Customers started using it to escalate stuff they are really upset about,” he said.