30 July 2012


A mere 12 years ago, a tweet was a sound a bird made, tablets were something you swallowed when you were sick and a blackberry was a fruit you ate. No one had heard of social media, iPads, blogs, Twitter, Facebook or LinkedIn. Since then, social media has become the dynamic way of communication for personal and professional purposes. With its far reach and immediate response capability, it connects people from all over the world. On Twitter, problems are often solved in 140 characters.

Various airlines are using social media to build their brand and make customer service first class. They are using Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and blogs to interact with potential and existing customers, and to learn what these customers like and dislike.

Virgin America's Facebook page links you to search flights, check-in manager and check flight status, while also giving your news about the company. Delta uses YouTube extensively. Their safety video created so much interest that people dubbed the featured Flight Attendant "Deltalina". Delta also uses YouTube to post videos of their employees' favourite destinations.

Twitter is a popular medium for airlines and their customers. Passengers waiting in airports post what they are doing, eating and seeing. If customers are not happy or feel disappointed, they will tweet their experiences immediately. Airlines should be listening and taking action. Twitter is ideal for travel advisories, flight updates, pointing followers to interesting posts on other media, and letting customers know about special offers and competitions. Treat Twitter as one of your customer service platforms.

United Airlines has Twares, where every Wednesday and Thursday it offers a limited number of special fares for the upcoming weekend. These Twares are exclusively available to followers of their Twitter account, and are time sensitive.

JetBlue has a Cheeps programme similiar to United's. Most often on Tuesdays, JetBlue post their last-minute flight deals, for travel on Saturday, returning Monday or Tuesday. Cheeps are offered for a limited time. JetBlue's main Twitter account has over a million followers. The account is used for updating passengers on flight status / delays, sharing photos, sharing experiences, and general news from the airline. The airline is very active in responding to issues that its followers post.

Airlines should be blogging. Blog posts can be about your airline news, new aircraft, reviews, airport information, highlighting employee or department achievements, etc... The blog should connect to all your other social media.

Applications like TripIt announce people's travel intentions to their friends. These status updates are often integrated with social media sites like Facebook. An airline could integrate TripIt data with their frequent flyer database to create a list of their loyal customers and the destinations those customers are planning to visit. The airline can then send them a custom-tailored travel deal. Lufthansa's MySkyStatus allows people to share their location with their Facebook and Twitter friends during the flight.

Dutch airline KLM used social media to reward its customers for mentioning them via social media. The KLM Surprise Campaign involved close monitoring of social media channels by KLM staff. They looked for people who were waiting at airports for KLM flights and using social media while they did so. The staff then identified a particular customer and tried to find out as much about them as they could. Once they had enough information, they went out and bought a small, appropriate gift for that passenger and gave it to them before they left the airport. For example, a woman who was going hiking was given a watch that tracks distances and walking speed, and an elderly lady travelling alone was upgraded to First Class. KLM created a Web site and Twitter account dedicated to their campaign, joined Foursquare, and posted their video on their YouTube channel and the KLM Facebook Fan page. They only did this for 40 passengers, but the news spread quickly via social media and resulted in over 1 million views of their video on their YouTube channel.

At the recent SITA Air Transport IT Summit in Brussels, KLM announced that it employed 23 staff dedicated to address the social media demands of passengers. The team is based at Schiphol Airport. Someone tweeted at the airport that they were thirsty – one of the team saw the tweet and went to find them and hand over a bottle of water.

Qatar Airways used a social media photo contest, Reflections, through which the airline gave away Business and Economy Class air tickets and a total of 1.6 million Privilege Club Qmiles. Followers uploaded photos and invited their friends, families and followers to vote for their photos.

Mango was voted the Coolest Domestic Airline for third successive year in the Sunday Times Generation Next Brand Survey 2011. The annual poll measures brand consciousness and loyalty amongst South African youth. CEO Nico Bezuidenhout believes that the airline’s communication strategy, which includes a large social media component, has paid dividends. Mango uses a blog, Facebook and Twitter, and was the first South African domestic airline to embrace social media, initially on Facebook.

Social media carries risk and reward. When United Airlines refused to compensate Son of Maxwell band member Dave Caroll for damage caused to his US$3 500 guitar during a 2008 flight, he posted his frustration on-line. He made a video and posted it on YouTube. United lost 10 % of its share value during this period.  its brand was under attack. More than 8,4m people having seen the video so far. United did approach Dave directly and dealt with his issue, even changing some internal policies to ensure this never happened again. Dave later added another video that thanks United for the way they responded.

A notice on Korean Air’s Web site announcing the start of non-stop flights from Korea to Kenya sparked a flurry of angry Tweets and Facebook postings over the description of Kenyans as indigenous people full of "primitive energy". Kenyans expressed their anger on social media and pictures of the advert were quickly shared on Twitter. Kenyans also circulated contacts of the South Korean Embassy in Nairobi, encouraging people to call and e-mail to demand an apology.

An attempt to launch a competition on Twitter backfired for Australia’s Qantas Airlines. The airline offered a prize of a gift pack that included a pair of First Class pyjamas. Followers had to tweet their idea of a luxury experience along with the hashtag #QantasLuxury. Consumers seized the opportunity to share their complaints about the airline.

Letters, e-mails and phone calls can still get results for unhappy airline travellers, but more often than not, passengers are taking their frustrations on-line where they are loud, fast and public. Where airlines don't take care of their customers, bad publicity has become a part of daily operations. This infographic shows you how airlines allocate resources to social media.

Remember, social media is about building relationships, not bombarding people with ads.